Tibet a new frontline of ‘white gold rush’ in global race for renewable energy

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Tibet, a new frontline of "wild gold rush" in global race for renewable energy.
Executive summary

A lithium boom is underway in eastern Tibet as China’s geologists have established that at least 85% of the PRC’s reserves of the critical mineral are to be found on the plateau.

China’s scientists deployed new remote sensing technologies for the first time to detect hard rock lithium deposits in remote areas of Kham and Amdo in Sichuan Province. Satellite imagery viewed for this report reveals a vast ore belt “sleeping in high mountains and deep valleys”, according to Chinese state media, which describe this as the largest lithium deposit in Asia.

Both Tesla, the world’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer, and its competitor China’s BYD (which will enter the electric car market in the UK this year) are becoming increasingly reliant on Tibet’s lithium exploitation and production as they expand their corporate operations worldwide. Bigger, faster electric cars require larger capacity lithium batteries – which cannot be done without a hidden footprint in Tibet.

This acceleration of lithium mining involves high risk and energy-intensive forms of processing in the seismically active and heavily securitised landscape of the world’s highest and largest plateau, a global epicentre of climate change. Tibet is crucial to China’s efforts to achieve dominance in securing not just lithium, but also a wide range of critical minerals and rare earths in the global race to a decarbonised future.

Chinese producers dominate lithium processing globally and the PRC secures much of its lithium from other countries such as Australia and Chile. This report, the first in a series produced by new research network Turquoise Roof, reveals by contrast the extent of lithium reserves newly identified by China in Tibet, the implications of new processing methods and the link with the EV industry.

  • For decades, little effort went into exploring for hard rock lithium deposits in Tibet due to difficulties in mining in remote high altitude locations among other factors. But excitement grew among geologists and the Tibetan plateau has now been assessed to hold at least 3.655 million tons of China’s estimated 4.047 million tons of lithium.
  • Lithium extraction involves a polluting, waste generating and energy-intensive processing at the mine itself, in an area known for its rich biodiversity encompassing subtropical, temperate and alpine landscapes abundant in medicinal herbs. In May, thousands of bids by Chinese investors were registered for one slice of Tibetan landscape, with initial price offerings being exceeded hundreds of times.
  • U.S. investor Warren Buffett’s purchase of BYD shares enabled the company to exploit the Chabyer (Chinese: Zabuye) salt lake in Tibet, closer to India’s border than mainland China. As production intensifies, the future of Elon Musk’s Tesla gigafactory outside Shanghai looks increasingly dependent on access to the hard rock lithium (spodumene) of mountainous eastern Tibet and its processing plants.
  • Cheap and polluting methods of processing the rock from Tibet’s first lithium mining area are now likely to be underway in a factory that had previously been closed after poisoning of local rivers and livestock. Tibetan protests in both 2013 and 2016 against the mining at Jiajika in Kham, which is in a district prone to earthquakes, were ruthlessly crushed. This report reveals the new methods of processing underway and the new lithium deposits revealed by satellite imagery and Chinese sources.
  • Tibetans who express any concern about the mines or protest peacefully are at risk of being killed, tortured, imprisoned and the loss of their livelihoods. And many of the mechanisms of the authoritarian state used to silence and shut down Tibetans – notably surveillance through smartphones, and other tools of big data predictive policing – are powered by lithium batteries.
  • China’s dominance in lithium processing enables it to set the new normal of battery-powered cars, which are getting bigger, faster and more lithium-intensive, with the current demand driving the world towards more intensive energy consumption at a time when a focus on using less is imperative. While China proclaims itself a leader of clean, green energy, it is committed, openly and publicly, to increasing its carbon emissions each year to 2030 and is actively building many new coal-fired power stations

Under Xi Jinping’s Made in China 2025 campaign, China already leads globally in PV (photovoltaic) solar, wind turbines, hydro dam construction and the power grids that connect them to distant industrial users. It uses its inside knowledge and profits from mining Tibet to speculate on future prices via the London Metals Exchange, which it bought in 2012. Xi Jinping has ordered the intensification of critical minerals exploitation.

Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, Japan and S Korea are at the forefront of a new global alliance aiming to redefine critical minerals supply as a security issue and seeking to end dependency for supply on China. The ‘Minerals Security Partnership’ (MSP) is in theory open to all countries that are committed to “responsible critical mineral supply chains to support economic prosperity and climate objectives”. China and Russia are not on the list of the grouping, which is being dubbed the ‘metallic NATO’.

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