The geopolitical ecology renewable energy and lithium in the South American salt flats.

In the dusk of the fossil fuel age and given the challenges of climate change, important geopolitical transformations are happening in the global energy system. Renewable energies are now firmly at the centre of global debate, requiring novel strategic resources such as lithium for new technologies leading to the low-carbon energy transition. Lithium-ion batteries play an essential role in two aspects: by expanding and massifying the use of electric vehicles reducing the CO2 emissions from the transport sector; and by increasing the efficiency and capacity of renewable energies through large energy storage systems to be connected to the grid. Both of these will  dramatically change the residential and commercial energy markets. Find out more about my research on the geopolitical ecology of lithium and the South American salt flats here.

The extraction and evaporation of lithium entails a complex process. The brines are mostly located in the so-called ‘Lithium Triangle’ in the South American salt flats of northern Chile, southern Bolivia and north-western Argentina. This region accounts for 85% of the lithium sourced from brines worldwide. Chile and Argentina have been extracting and exporting lithium for more than 20 years by private companies. Although Bolivia is not a producer yet, it concentrates more than a third of the global lithium resources.

Considering lithium is a strategic resource found in three dissimilar countries (in terms of political economy, levels of poverty and industrial development) my research focuses on the geopolitical dynamics emerging in the South American salt flats.

Renewable energy geopolitics emerges as a field in which different stakeholders seeking to control resources valuable for turbines, solar panels or batteries, enter into a new era of competition and geographical domination. Elements I am interested in include: i) the different elements shaping the governance of lithium and how alliances with transnational companies are developing in Andean countries; ii) the emergence of new ‘renewable superpowers’ such as China in the lithium supply chain and its degree of influence it the Lithium triangle; and iii) how lithium mining will perpetuate (or not) uneven development and forms of neo-dependency in the producing countries, in the face of a world in a climate change crisis and an aggressive energy transition already taking place.

The research is based on primary and secondary data. It has a qualitative approach grounded in interpretative and exploratory practices. It seeks to understand frameworks and political struggles around the mining of lithium and at the same time, it looks for new angles and insights in relation to the different roles of the state in each country, the diverse range of actors interacting in defining governance, and the different challenges emerging from lithium mining in South America. 

May 2019: From a White Desert to the Largest World Deposit of Lithium: Symbolic Meanings and Materialities of the Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia

REN21: Renewables 2019, Global Status Report

October 2018: Sustainable Governance of Strategic Minerals: Post-Neoliberalism and Lithium in Bolivia

June 2018 Lithium and cobalt – a tale of two commodities


Dr. Maria Daniela Sanchez-Lopez