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LITHIUM BATTERIES

There is no doubt, as a nation by producing or buying electric vehicles on masse, we are just accelerating climate change and in order to avoid major problems we must change tack.

Metals such as lithium and cobalt provide examples of the awkward issues that lie ahead, said Herrington. Both elements are needed to make lightweight rechargeable batteries for electric cars and for storing power from wind and solar plants. Their production is likely to increase significantly over the next decade – and that could cause serious ecological problems.

In the case of cobalt, 60% of the world’s supply comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo where large numbers of unregulated mines use children as young as seven as miners. There they breathe in cobalt-laden dust that can cause fatal lung ailments while working tunnels that are liable to collapse.

Batteries make up about 40 percent of the value of an electric car, and China currently controls two-thirds of worldwide cell manufacturing.

But the EU hopes to increase its share from the current three percent to 25 percent by 2028.

Last year the bloc approved 3.2 billion euros of state subsidies from France, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Italy, Belgium and Poland to stimulate a European battery industry and meet homegrown demand.

So far plans for a number of giant European "gigafactories" have been unveiled, including a colossal Tesla plant in Germany and a $1bn facility in Sweden part-funded by Volkswagen.

They include microbiologist Cristina Dorador, who has spent years studying the salt flats of the Atacama Desert. She says lithium mines extract huge amounts of groundwater. Ten-times saltier than seawater, this brine is then placed in enormous evaporation pools. After 18 months, the resulting 6% lithium solution is then turned into a white lithium powder and exported for use in batteries.

Dorador says removing so much groundwater will inevitably make the Atacama Desert — home to Chile's lithium mines — hotter and drier. She recently co-authored an investigation  linking lithium mining to an 11% reduction in the local flamingo population over the past decade.

"With so much pressure from the world to produce more lithium," she says, "the price is going to be paid by Chile's environment."

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