Issued by CEMO Center - Paris
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Power Play in Africa: The Geopolitics and Controversies of Lithium Mining for Electric Vehicles

Monday 20/February/2023 - 11:13 PM
The Reference
Anas Samir

Lithium extraction has become a significant political issue in Africa due to the vast lithium reserves in the region and the increasing demand for electric vehicles and other lithium-powered devices. China, the largest consumer of lithium, is investing in lithium mining projects in Africa, and this has created a complex and often controversial issue, pitting economic development and job creation against environmental concerns. There is also a geopolitical dimension to the issue, as China seeks to secure access to critical resources and expand its influence in Africa.

Lithium is an essential element in the production of batteries used in electric vehicles, energy storage, and consumer electronics. As demand for the metal rises, its extraction has become a significant political issue in Africa. China is the world's largest consumer of lithium, and it produced about 62% of the global production in 2020. The country is seeking to secure access to key mineral resources and expand its influence in Africa.

China's mining activities in Africa have the potential to provide much-needed investment and job opportunities to the continent. Lithium extraction has the potential to boost the economies of African countries, particularly those with large reserves of the metal. However, the benefits of lithium mining are not evenly distributed, and multinational corporations often generate the profits, which flow out of the country, rather than being reinvested in local communities. Some observers argue that China's involvement in Africa's resource extraction industry lacks transparency and accountability.

Ganfeng Lithium, a Chinese company, has emerged as a key player in the global lithium market. The company has invested in lithium projects in Zimbabwe, where it has a partnership with the Australian mining company, Pilbara Minerals. Ganfeng Lithium's investments in Africa have created job opportunities and contributed to the economic growth of African countries. However, critics point out that the mining industry is capital-intensive and requires a relatively small workforce, meaning that job creation may not be as significant as proponents of the industry suggest.

The development of local mining supply chains could support downstream industries and provide a pathway for African countries to participate in the global clean energy transition. However, it is essential to consider the potential environmental and social impacts of mining operations, including the displacement of local communities and the degradation of natural habitats. The lithium mining process typically involves large-scale open-pit mining, which can have significant impacts on soil, water, and air quality. The processing of lithium also involves the use of toxic chemicals, which can cause contamination and pollution of the surrounding environment.

The rising demand for lithium has created a geopolitical dimension to the issue, with various countries seeking access to critical resources and seeking to expand their influence in Africa. China, in particular, has been active in pursuing lithium resources in Africa, with a view to securing the materials needed for its rapidly expanding electric vehicle industry. China's interest in lithium mining in Africa has raised concerns among some observers, who are concerned about the environmental and social impacts of mining operations in Africa and the ability of local communities to benefit from the extraction of critical resources.