The ‘White Gold’ Rush: Impacts of lithium mining in South America

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Dylan Gaymer

Lithium, the so-called 'white gold' of the future, is fast becoming a key driver in the modern world. It is essential in the production of lithium-ion batteries, used in mobile phones and electric vehicles (EVs) at a time when the demand for such devices is accelerating. In 2019, batteries accounted for 65 per cent of all lithium end-usage worldwide and lithium demand for electric vehicles is set to increase by over 171 per cent by 2025, compared to ten years prior. As fossil fuels become increasingly untenable in light of anthropogenic climate change, the 21st century may see lithium become one of the most critical components in meeting the world's future energy and consumable demands.

South America hosts approximately 60 per cent of the world's supply in its "lithium triangle" (see figure 1) which consists of high-altitude lakes and salt flats. Given the magnitude of these deposits and the trajectory of lithium demand in the future, South America is set to play a “big role” in the global supply of the resource and capitalise on the growing market. However, concerns over how the states manage both the resources and the subsequent potential wealth persist.

Figure 1: The Lithium Triangle/ 'The White Gold Rush' in The Economist 15/06/2017

Commodity Dependence

Commodities such as lithium are integral components to developing economies, where they create revenue to increase living standards and stimulate growth. However, with novel technologies driving demand for lithium and commodity prices remaining notoriously volatile, relying on lithium exports creates substantial risks of commodity dependence for South America. This risk was made clear when the instability of lithium prices saw its price