30 November 2023

Battery supply chains from South America to Europe and beyond: Issues of governance, sustainability and justice

For the past two years, the Green Dealings project, funded by the Swiss Network of International Studies (SNIS), has sought to understand how rules and relationships are being negotiated between South America and Europe to support a lithium battery-powered “green transition”. On October 26th and 27th, 2023, the project’s final conference took place at the Geneva Graduate Institute. The conference was an opportunity to critically reflect on the possibilities and limits of current efforts to “govern“ the lithium supply chain and to exchange and catalyse future social science research.

The two-day conference was chaired by Morgan Scoville-Simonds, Head of the Department of Global Development and Planning at the University of Agder, Norway, and co-coordinator of the Green Dealings Project, and Jonas Köppel, PhD researcher at the Geneva Graduate Institute and lead of Critical Research in the Green Dealings project. Marc Hufty, Professor at the Geneva Graduate Institute and coordinator of the project, inaugurated the public conference.

During the two days, researchers from different social science disciplines and at various career stages were invited to present their ongoing research on aspects of the lithium-ion battery transition. Several contributions dealt with Lithium extraction in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile and what this means for societies, politics and the environment. Furthermore, the implications of this transition towards Lithium-ion batteries for Europe and the impact of the recently adopted Battery Regulation of the European Union were discussed. Other contributions highlighted China’s central role in pivoting towards a battery-powered future where infrastructure change is happening much more rapidly. Beyond the state, a final cluster of contributions focussed on the global production networks (GPNs) and the configurations of (transnational) corporate actors that have emerged and are continually evolving as batteries become more central.

Together, the presentations from this small group of critical scholars from around the globe highlighted key aspects of the very concrete battery-related transitions occurring in diverse localities and at different scales, which are closely connected yet have uneven effects for different places and peoples.. Recurring threads were the socio-technical imaginaries promising a greener, more just future in which batteries are assumed to take a key role, in conversation - often in contradiction - with the various environmental and social tensions that arise around mineral extraction and inequalities within global industrial relations of production. The research share was followed up by a workshop to co-design future collaboration on critical battery-related research.

In the public part of the conference, Green Dealings researchers presented findings of the project, and reflected collectively on how (European) normative perceptions of a “just“ and “green“ transition are shaping international Lithium-ion battery supply chains, with important implications globally, particularly in the global South where minerals are typically sourced. As Professor Marc Hufty pointed out in his opening speech, lithium-ion batteries will remain a major topic in the coming years as they are seen as a solution to address carbon emissions in the transport sector, with few alternatives in sight. However, the shift to electric vehicles will need large amounts of raw materials such as lithium, but also copper, cobalt and nickel – and will thus give rise to new patterns of extraction. “We are basically replacing an old economy with a new economy, which generates the same problems.” The event title, “Supply Chains for a Green Transition: Possibilities and Limits of Due Diligence Policies for Lithium-ion Batteries”, expressed the broader implications of legal provisions such as those included in the EU Battery Regulation. These norms oblige companies to assess the social and environmental risks involved in their activities across supply chains and to report their policies on how to address them.

Presentations were held in the Pecha Kucha-style format, giving each presenter 5 minutes to present their topic along a set of timed slides. First, Morgan Scoville-Simonds and Daniela Sanchez – a research fellow at the University of Cambridge and strategy analyst at the battery start-up Nyobolt – introduced the concept of due diligence to the audience. Then, Melisa Escosteguy and Walter Diaz-Paz, PhD researchers at the University of Salta, Argentina, zoomed in on the South American salt flats where Lithium is extracted. They stressed tensions surrounding the consultation of indigenous peoples and water use. Finally, Diego Murgia and Martín Obaya from the University of San Martin in Buenos Aires presented results from a recent Delphi study on sustainable and just lithium battery value chains (the English-language version will be released in December 2023). The results led them to reflect on EU policies that could foster socially and environmentally sustainable Lithium extraction in South America, in particular the Global Gateway initiative and the EU Battery Regulation.

Subsequently, a panel of experts including Victoria Reisch, policy advisor on Resource Policies and Mineral Supply Chains at Germanwatch, Gavin Bridge, Professor of Economic Geography at Durham University and a Fellow of the Durham Energy Institute, Carolina Ferreira, consultant on lithium and critical raw materials at the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and Clovis Freire, Economic Affairs Officer at the Division on Technology and Logistics of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), were invited to comment and debate the opportunities and challenges of due diligence policies.

In the wake of the conference, part of the Green Dealings project’s network of researchers embarked on a “multi-sited workshop" to exchange perspectives on Europe’s battery ambitions in Germany and the Czech Republic. This included interviews with different actors in the nascent German battery sector, visits to the sites of potential Lithium extraction projects, and exchanges with activists and researchers working at the frontier of the German automotive industry’s efforts to catch up in the electric vehicle race.

More information on the Green Dealings research project can be found here.