30 May 2017

Lithium: one of the planet’s most strategic commodities

In order for technological solutions not to turn into social and political problems, Marc Hufty’s new research project, "The Global Political Ecology of Lithium Commodity Chain (LITHIUM)”, aims to understand the issues surrounding the use of lithium, a natural resource presented as an element of importance for the green economy. Interview with Marc Hufty, Professor at the Institute’s Department of Development Studies and Programme Lead at the Centre for International Environmental Studies (CIES).

Why this interest in lithium?

The shift towards a green economy implies a new energy paradigm, a transition from fossil-fuel dependency to a sustainable low-carbon economy. Part of this change is contingent upon batteries for balancing the intermittent electricity supply from renewable sources (e.g. wind, solar) and for electric vehicles. Due to their ability to store large amounts of energy in lightweight compact form, lithium-based technologies are now at the cutting-edge of research and development in energy storage. Reflecting this interest, the global demand for lithium is expected to multiply tenfold by 2050 and its price is increasing rapidly. Lithium has become one of the planet’s most strategic commodities.

Is this resource easy to find?

As a natural commodity it is in many ways unique. It is relatively rare in nature and 70 percent of the world’s exploitable reserves are located in the salares (salt flats) of three countries, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile (the so-called ABC of lithium-rich countries), in socially and environmentally sensitive indigenous and high-altitude areas.

What are the characteristics of the lithium market?

The lithium market has a peculiar configuration, with a very small number of firms producing the metal, and an equally small number of countries processing it in consumer goods such as portable consumer electronics (China, Japan and South Korea). And it offers specific challenges for recycling given the premises of a circular economy (that consider the entire cycle of a product). It is also a fast-changing market.

What problems have been identified to date?

From production to recycling, the lithium commodity chain encompasses environmental, technological, legal, social and policy challenges at the local, national and international levels. Unless these issues are fully assessed and understood, there are risks that a new reliance on lithium might contribute, not to a new “green economy”, but to reinforcing mechanisms that produce the social and environmental problems marking the current “brown economy” (fossil-fuel dependent).

What is the purpose of your research?

In light of the problems just mentioned, our aim is to take stock of the lithium commodity chain from the perspectives of political ecology and governance, by producing a comprehensive, multi-level and interdisciplinary understanding of its challenges. What we have now is a very fragmentary view. There is very little research on the commodity chain, on the social and environmental aspects of its extraction and consumption, on water issues, and on a regional comparison of the situation in the ABC countries. Specifically, our purpose is to understand how governance processes and socio-environmental conditions at different levels are influenced by the global commodity chain of lithium, from ABC countries to Switzerland (as a high-end consumer country). The project builds on existing research collaborations in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, and prior field experience.

A word about the practical dimension of the project…

The project was attributed a budget of CHF 570,000 by the Swiss National Science Foundation and has a duration of four years (2017–2021). The available funds will finance a PhD thesis and a postdoc, as well as local research partners’ activities in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile.

Photo by Marc Hufty.