Since 2018, the lithium market has experienced significant growth, marked by Chinese companies acquiring lithium mines, highlighting China’s pivotal role in the global battery metal supply chain as the world’s second-largest economy. Recent reports from November reveal that China’s burgeoning electric vehicle industry is driving a surge in lithium demand in the Tibetan plateau, raising concerns about environmental degradation and human rights violations in an already troubled region.
China and Tibet have always had a tumultuous relationship. Tibet is now an autonomous region within the People’s Republic of China(PRC). China has the world’s biggest Electronic Vehicles market but largely relies on other countries for raw materials such as lithium which are used to make the batteries that power these low-carbon vehicles. Automakers based in Beijing are preparing to harness the extensive lithium deposits located on the Tibetan plateau, which account for approximately 85 percent of China’s total lithium reserves. Beijing has initiated auctions for mining rights in Tibet to secure the essential raw materials.
White Gold Rush in Tibet and its Effects
Known as ‘white gold’ due to its soft, silvery-white appearance, lithium has emerged as a pivotal metal in the production of rechargeable batteries, not only for electric vehicles but also for a wide range of devices such as laptops and mobile phones. Electric vehicle manufacturers favor lithium-ion batteries for their lightweight nature and rapid recharge capabilities.
Tibet is renowned for its abundant and diverse ecology. Among its valuable assets, Tibet is home to significant lithium reserves, a vital raw material in the semiconductor industry.
The “White Gold Rush” has seen Chinese miners employing swift yet outdated extraction and processing methods, resulting in significant pollution of the local environment, as reported by Tibetan researchers. The extraction of lithium deposits is depleting this resource and causing ecological damage in Tibet. Satellite imagery confirms the alarming environmental impact of excessive mining, with most mining activities concentrated in the regions of Sichuan and Qinghai. The overexploitation of these mining resources is taking a toll on the environment.
In a recent incident in Sichuan, mining activities led to the death of fish in a local river and harmed the grasslands that serve as the home of Tibetan herders. These mines are primarily owned by Chinese companies who secured them through competitive bidding, with notable participation from Chinese battery giant CATL. Ironically, the local communities often remain unaware and uninformed about the decisions affecting their hill pastures and livelihoods.