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Lithium Geopolitics

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Lithium Geopolitics

Heavy Competition for the Lightest Metal

Anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions since the industrial revolution have driven large increases in the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O).  According to scientists, these gases, along with other sources of GHG emissions, are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming of the climate system since the mid-19th century. Fossil fuel use is the primary source of anthropogenic GHG emissions. Therefore, attempts to reduce fossil fuel-based energy emissions and mitigate effects on the climate will require, inter alia, transformation of energy consumption by drastically reducing fossil-based energies to greener sources of energy. So, the decade ahead will bring massive structural shifts as economies around the world transition away from fossil fuels.

A transition to de-carbonization of energy consumption is already underway with the introduction of renewable energy systems such as photovoltaic and wind turbine systems, and, more recently, rechargeable energy storage batteries that are used to produce energy for household use and to power electric vehicles. Some of the raw materials used in these renewable energy systems as well as in key industry sectors such as aerospace, defense, health, automotive and consumer electronics currently have few substitutes and are not widely globally distributed. They are defined as strategic and critical raw materials because they serve an essential function in the manufacturing of a product, the absence of which would have substantial consequences for a country’s economy or national security.

Since there are few or no substitutes to these raw materials, strict measures are employed to control their conservation and distribution. One such material is lithium.

On the face of it, lithium, having atomic number three on the periodic table, is not one of the more famous elements, like gold. But behind the scenes, as countries compete to get ahead in the global energy transition, this soft silver-white, univalent element of the alkali metal group has become one of the world’s most valuable commodities owing to its critical importance as a crucial building block of the lithium-ion rechargeable batteries that power electric vehicles (EVs), laptops and mobile phones. Moreover, it’s an essential ingredient in lithium-ion batteries without which there’s no way to power an electric car, or store energy from wind and solar. As countries transition to a green future, demand for lithium is exploding, and supply just can’t keep up. The world is going to need a lot more of it to run their vehicles and produce clean energy to combat climate change. But, at present, only a handful of countries lead the production of lithium. Although China is not one of the biggest producers of lithium, it controls more than 60% of the global processing capacity for the mineral.

That is the reason why experts fear that world powers may be at daggers drawn in near future to gain control over this critical source of renewable energy. The extent to which major economies are willing to clash over these strategic commodities in order to secure reliable supply chains remains to be seen, and will largely be a function of the global trade system going forward. However, the fact remains that supply chain security will be a matter that no policymaker has the luxury of ignoring.

The writer is a CSS aspirant.

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