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The global political ecology of lithium commodity chain (LITHIUM)

English title The global political ecology of lithium commodity chain (LITHIUM)
Applicant Hufty Marc
Number 172698
Funding scheme Project funding (Div. I-III)
Research institution Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies IHEID
Institution of higher education Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies - IHEID
Main discipline Political science
Start/End 01.09.2017 - 31.08.2021
Approved amount 569'322.00
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All Disciplines (2)

Discipline
Political science
Ethnology

Keywords (10)

Chile; Governance; Switzerland; Multi-level analysis; Bolivia; Political ecology; Commodity chain; Interdisciplinarity; Argentina; Lithium

Lay Summary (French)

Lead
Le passage à une «économie verte» implique un «nouveau paradigme énergétique», une transition de la dépendance aux combustibles fossiles vers une économie durable à faible émission de carbone. Une partie de ce changement dépend des batteries pour stocker l'énergie provenant de sources renouvelables (par exemple éoliennes, solaires) et pour les véhicules électriques. En raison de leur capacité à stocker de grandes quantités d'énergie sous forme compacte légère, les technologies à base de lithium sont maintenant à la pointe de la recherche et du développement en matière de stockage d'énergie. Reflétant cet intérêt, la demande mondiale de lithium devrait décupler d'ici 2050 et son prix augmente rapidement. Le lithium est devenu l'un des produits les plus stratégiques de la planète.
Lay summary

De l'extraction au recyclage, de nombreuses tensions pourraient remettre en question le fonctionnement durable de la chaîne de production du lithium: questions environnementales, technologiques, juridiques, sociales et politiques; défaillances du marché, comportement stratégique et oligopole au niveau international; et le risque que le lithium contribue à une économmie du «gaspillage» au lieu d'une société durable. Nous n'avons actuellement qu'une vision très fragmentaire de ce produit et de ce qui est en jeu. Il y a très peu de recherches sur l'ensemble de la filière, sur les aspects sociaux et environnementaux de son extraction et de sa consommation, sur les questions liée à l'eau par exemple, et sur une comparaison régionale de la situation dans les pays producteurs, de sa transformation, de sa consommation et de son recyclage.

Ce projet vise à comprendre ces défis et à les analyser tout au long de la filière, entendue comme les différentes étapes de l'extraction au recyclage, dans différents lieux et contextes sociaux. L'analyse est inspirée par une perspective d'écologie politique (combinant l'écologie, la géographie, la science politique, la socio-anthropologie et l'économie écologique). Nous examinons les contextes écologiques et sociaux, les enjeux et les processus de gouvernance à chaque niveau de la chaîne, la production au niveau local et national (Argentine, Bolivie, Chili), les interactions entre ces pays (niveau régional), le marché international et la transformation (Chine, Corée et Japon), la consommation (différents pays dont la Suisse en tant que pays consommateur haut de gamme), et le recyclage.

La recherche s'appuie sur une expérience significative en Amérique latine, où nous avons des collaborations de recherche existantes et de l'expérience sur le terrain. Nous cherchons à contribuer au courant de littérature de l'écologie politique, du développement et de la gouvernance. Les réalisations concrètes comprennent la contribution au groupe de recherche sur les produits de base en Suisse, le renforcement d'un réseau international de partenaires de recherche, la formation d'un post-doctorant, un doctorat et 4 étudiants en master, produisant jusqu'à 6 articles scientifiques et interagissant avec les acteurs de la filière, y compris les décideurs.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 18.05.2018

Responsible applicant and co-applicants

Employees

Project partner

Publications

Publication
Lithium Transformations: An Unfinished Story
KoeppelJonas (2020), Lithium Transformations: An Unfinished Story, in Transformations, (33), 27-47.

Collaboration

Group / person Country
Types of collaboration
INENCO/UNSa Argentina (South America)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
- Research Infrastructure
- Exchange of personnel

Scientific events

Active participation

Title Type of contribution Title of article or contribution Date Place Persons involved
EASA 2020 Lisboa. Panel 037 on Mining the Energy Transition: Technology, Resource Chains, and Extractive Encounters Talk given at a conference Lithium Futures: Narrative Relations Between Global Energy Transition and Bolivian Mineral Industrialization 20.07.2020 Lisbon, Portugal Köppel Jonas; Scoville-Simonds Morgan;
Chemical, University College London Talk given at a conference "Chemical Connections as a Matter of Scale: Reflections on an Ethnography of Lithium" 06.07.2019 London, Great Britain and Northern Ireland Köppel Jonas;
Resources for a social-ecological transformation, University of Innsbruck Talk given at a conference Towards a Global Political Ecology of Lithium 02.03.2019 Innsbruck, Austria Köppel Jonas;
POLLEN18, OsloMet Talk given at a conference Adaptation, contestation, resistance 20.06.2018 Oslo, Norway Scoville-Simonds Morgan;


Self-organised

Title Date Place
Regional academic conference/seminar 31.07.2019 Salta, Chile

Abstract

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 grid-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.As a natural commodity it is in many ways unique. It is relatively rare in nature and 70% 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. The market configuration is also peculiar, 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. And it offers specific challenges for recycling given the premises of a circular economy (that consider the entire cycle of a product).From production to recycling, many issues could challenge the sustainable functioning of the lithium commodity chain: environmental, technological, legal, social and policy issues at the local-national level; market failures, strategic behavior and oligopoly at the international level; and a risk of lithium contributing to a 'throw away' instead of a sustainable society in consumer countries. Unless these issues are examined there are risks that a new reliance on lithium could contribute, instead of to a new 'green economy', to reinforcing mechanisms that produce the social and environmental problems that characterize the current 'brown economy' (fossil-fuel dependent).In light of this, our aim is to take stock of the lithium commodity chain from a political ecology and a governance perspectives. Can lithium, as a symbolic commodity for the green economy, be produced and consumed in a socially equitable and environmentally sustainable way? What are the implications of present and future market configurations for the metal? And what are the obstacles for a sound governance regime of this natural resource?This research is innovative in different aspects. It brings both empirical and theoretical contributions by producing a comprehensive, multi-level and interdisciplinary understanding of the lithium commodity chain, and developing a theoretical framework for global natural resources under the new paradigm of a green economy. What we have now is a very fragmentary view. While significant technical research on lithium as a metal has been conducted, there is very little research on the full 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. And while there are many studies of the market for lithium, none integrates all of these factors. Seeking to address these limitations, this project proposes to examine the global political ecology of lithium. 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 and prior field experience. We seek to contribute to a strand of literature in political ecology, development and governance studies, as well as at the policy level. Concrete outputs include contributing to the research cluster on commodities in Switzerland, strengthening an international network of research partners, training of one post-doc, one PhD, and 4 master students, producing up to 6 scientific papers and interacting with policy-makers.
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