It also depends a lot on the type of mining. The EuGeLi project in Alsace, led by the French mining group Eramet, would extract lithium from underground brines used to produce geothermal energy.
Eramet CEO Christel Boies said: “The critical issue for lithium mining is water consumption in already over-exploited areas. We have 12 patents on technology that dramatically reduces the impact of water use. There are technologies, like our technology, that are truly environmentally friendly.
According to the European Geothermal Energy Council, these production methods are also cleaner because the extraction takes place underground, no fluids or gases are released and, using renewable geothermal energy, they are zero-emission. .
Council policy chief Sanjeev Kumar said the method would mean Europe could “avoid what we are seeing in Chile” where huge land masses are spent mining lithium. He also said the potential was huge, citing the Vulcan Energy Resources plant in Germany’s Rhine Valley, which could produce enough lithium for 400 million electric vehicles.
This does not satisfy the critics, however. EEB’s Marin said, “But that still doesn’t answer a bigger question. Who are the people on the ground who will be seriously affected by these projects? Because all mining projects have an ecological footprint.
Request in question
Whether or not lithium can be mined using clean processes, it is not clear to many analysts that Europe needs to produce lithium on its own territory. It’s also unclear whether he needs it as much as he planned.
Demand projections reflect current policies and ambitions. “Based on different technologies, for example, the use of lithium could be greatly reduced, or based on [increased] public transport, or just strongly rethinking the way we build our cities, ”Marin told EEB, adding:“ If we extract more lithium, we lock ourselves into these technologies because there is no need alternative.
He referred to a recent OECD study report which predicts that total CO2 emissions from transport, given current policies, will increase a further 16% by 2050, compared to 2015 levels. “The emission reductions expected from these policies will be more than offset by the ‘increased transport demand,’ the report says. More ambitious policies (including shared mobility and better urban planning) in cities, for example, could result in a 22% decrease in urban transport activity compared to current projections, and a consequent reduction in emissions of CO2 in these areas up to 80%.
There are also alternatives to lithium for electric vehicles, including vehicles powered by hydrogen produced in a sustainable manner. However, analysts said more research and development is needed in this area.
“Hydrogen vehicles could compete for market share, but given costs, technological and infrastructural constraints, it is much more likely that the electric vehicle will dominate the mix,” said Maria Pastukhova, policy analyst at E3G.
Sodium batteries are an attractive alternative to lithium batteries because the chemical properties are similar. Sodium is much more widely available and it has a much smaller ecological footprint, although Pastukhova said that so far batteries are generally heavier and less powerful. “But in recent years we’ve seen some development. However, this technology is not yet mature and requires much more investment in research and development before it can compete with lithium-ion in the market. “
She said what the EU needs to do is ‘take a more holistic approach’ to the transport sector. “Cars, whether internal combustion engine or electric, are still cars. They take up space and have a heavy carbon footprint of the entire production process. Smart city planning, promoting more cycling, shorter walking distances, remote office, etc. are just as necessary. “
Besides alternatives for individual vehicles, environmentalists argue that the European Commission’s strategy does not pay enough attention to recycling these raw materials, posing an additional problem for the EU as it seeks to get rid of its dependence on petroleum but seems in danger of replacing it with a dependence on lithium.
Matthieu in the European Parliament said: “We need to work on ambitious circular economy policies such as ambitious product design requirements. We also want to drastically increase waste collection rates.
A new proposal battery regulation was released last December, which should prompt more recycling. Rio Tinto, for example, announced in May an agreement with battery technology group InoBat to create a “cradle to cradle” manufacturing and recycling value chain. This means producing components that can be truly recycled at the end of their life, mimicking nature’s cycle where everything can either be reused in some form or returned to the environment without causing damage.
What is clear is that Europeans are very attached to their personal vehicle. A report published in June by the European Environment Agency showed that average emissions from new passenger cars increased in 2019, driven by an appetite for sport utility vehicles (SUVs). Supporters say this makes the deployment of more electric vehicles more urgent, despite the need for lithium.
Henrike Hahn, Member of the European Parliament for the Greens, said: “What must be borne in mind is that often the increased input of critical raw materials into green technologies can have net beneficial effects on the environment. the environment. By using lithium and cobalt in batteries to build electric vehicles… huge volumes of fossil fuels needed to power internal combustion engine vehicles are saved.
For people in the many regions where Europe pushes for mines, those arguments do not change the fact that they will lose land and a way of life established for millennia to ensure the comfort of city dwellers, Marin said.
“The reason I call this hypocrisy is because we say yes, we are going to end up with net zero, but we are recreating these problems which are colonial in a sense that people on the outskirts are supposed to provide for the consumption. of the core which, in this case, would be the major European cities.