As the world moves towards electric cars and renewable grids, demand for lithium is wreaking havoc in northern Chile
The Atacama salt flat is a majestic, high-altitude expanse of gradations of white and grey, peppered with red lagoons and ringed by towering volcanoes. It took me a moment to get my bearings on my first visit, standing on this windswept plateau of 3,000 sq km (1,200 sq miles). A vertiginous drive had taken me and two other researchers through a sandstorm, a rainstorm, and the peaks and valleys of this mountainous region of northern Chile. The sun bore down on us intensely – the Atacama desert boasts the Earth’s highest levels of solar radiation, and only parts of Antarctica are drier.
I had come to the salt flat to research an emerging environmental dilemma. In order to stave off the worst of the accelerating climate crisis, we need to rapidly reduce carbon emissions. To do so, energy systems around the world must transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Lithium batteries play a key role in this transition: they power electric vehicles and store energy on renewable grids, helping to cut emissions from transportation and energy sectors. Underneath the Atacama salt flat lies most of the world’s lithium reserves; Chile currently supplies almost a quarter of the global market. But extracting lithium from this unique landscape comes at a grave environmental and social cost.