A path forward in combating climate change and escaping China’s lithium monopoly

Roslyn KuninWe are living in a world beset by wars, both cold and hot. The hottest right now are in the Middle East and the Ukraine. The cold wars are the struggles for political and economic dominance that were supposed to have ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989 but continue as Russia and China struggle with America for political and economic dominance in all or part of the world.

In addition, we must also deal with the big 21st-century problem of climate change.

There is good and bad news as we attempt to deal with these challenges. The bad news is that some of the tools we use to reduce or eliminate our problems don’t work very well, if at all. One such tool is boycotts.

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Boycotts have been used by all sides. By removing access to crucial or essential material, it is hoped that your enemy will no longer be able to continue the struggle against you. Boycotts often prove ineffective, however, because they primarily harm innocent civilians rather than the intended belligerents. When resources become scarce, the military, rather than the general population, generally receives priority in allocation.

Another factor contributing to the ineffectiveness of boycotts is that the targets of these boycotts, like all human beings, have a strong desire to avoid suffering and harm. They will go to great lengths to minimize the negative consequences. For instance, when Russia reduced the gas supply to Western Europe, the Europeans did not passively endure freezing conditions in the dark. Instead, they actively tapped into their own energy resources and sought assistance from their allies to mitigate the impact.

When the United States attempted to implement a boycott against the purchase of Russian oil, a significant source of foreign exchange earnings for Russia, its effectiveness was limited because many countries had a substantial need for Russian energy resources. The U.S. then imposed a price cap on Russian oil as an alternative approach. This lower price per barrel reduced Russia’s revenue for each unit of oil but also incentivized potential buyers to take advantage of the more affordable prices.

Making the purchase of something illegal does not work. If there is a market for a product, someone will supply it legally or otherwise, usually at a higher price. The drugs that have been banned for so long on this continent are a prime example.

But the same ingenuity that makes boycotts ineffective can be used to help us succeed in dealing with looming threats, whether from the cold wars between nations or the climate change that affects us all.

To deal with climate change, we are moving away from carbon-based energy to electricity stored in and delivered through batteries. The batteries are almost all lithium-based. China dominates the production and refinement of the scarce, expensive resource of lithium. We do not want to depend solely on China for such a crucial element.

Lithium batteries also need cobalt and nickel. Although Canada does produce some nickel, these elements are relatively scarce and often produced in unstable states.

Creativity and technology can help us resolve these challenges effectively. Sodium, which shares several common properties with lithium, offers a promising solution. Abundant and cost-effective, sodium can be sourced from seawater salt. It can be used in batteries, offering the added advantage of using iron and manganese, which are more readily available and cost-effective metals than the rarer and more expensive nickel and cobalt typically used in batteries.

This is not a perfect solution to eliminating the stranglehold that lithium, and thus China, has as we transition from carbon-based energy to a cleaner world using batteries. Sodium batteries are not yet a perfect substitute for their lithium counterparts. They come with certain drawbacks, such as being heavier for the same power output. As a result, it’s unlikely that we will see sodium batteries replacing lithium ones in devices like smartphones in the near future. Even in the automotive sector, sodium batteries are bulkier and less energy-efficient than lithium batteries currently in widespread use.

We are seeing movement toward sodium batteries. Factories in various countries, including China, have started producing them. China, in particular, has begun incorporating sodium batteries into some of its electric vehicles. Expect to see lighter and better sodium batteries emerge as the world deals with the lithium challenge.

All the world’s problems are not easily solved, but when push comes to shove, it is encouraging to see how often worthwhile solutions are found.

Dr. Roslyn Kunin is a public speaker, consulting economist and senior fellow of the Canada West Foundation.

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