“A green mine does not exist”

“The electric car? We want to make it accessible to everyone. We have the means to have a 100% circular and sovereign sector. » On the occasion of the Paris Motor Show in mid-October, Emmanuel Macron summarized his goals for the electric car that should replace the thermal vehicle by 2035 in order to respect the European “green pact”. French, popular, ecological. The French David against the Chinese and American Goliaths!

A few days later, the mining group Imerys announced the opening in Beauvoir, on the Allier, until 2027, of “one of the largest lithium extraction projects in the European Union” with impressive production potential: one million tonnes of lithium oxide underground, production of 34,000 tonnes per year from 2028 for a period of at least twenty-five years and the equivalent of 700,000 battery-powered electric vehicles per year .

Values ​​backed by social benefits – 1,000 direct and indirect jobs in the long term – and environmental commitments: CO2 emissions lower than half of all other existing operations, water used in a closed circuit, underground mine, rail transport. “We don’t have oil but we have lithium”, declared Emmanuel Macron in France 2 on 26 October. Close the ban.

A dash of magical thinking

The political sequence was well orchestrated. She played with the element of surprise, a dash of magical thinking and national pride. This should not prevent us from understanding what is at stake in terms of industrial strategy, from assessing what environmental promises are worth, or from building – we are not in China – democratic procedures to support this implementation.

Industrial strategy first. According to the International Energy Agency, to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, it is necessary, by 2050, to practically double the volume of metals – aluminum, copper, lithium, cobalt – used in the world. This is the price to pay for greening our technologies. The need for lithium appears there as strategic and even devouring, with estimates of an increase of up to 3,500% in current consumption. This growth is linked to the emergence of green technologies.

Once they have reached maturity, as a recent study (1) from the University of Louvain in Belgium reminds us, these metals can be reused through recycling. Even today it is necessary to organize these sectors of the circular economy and the products that accompany them – eco-design – so as not to face difficulties similar to those of leaving the current industrial model. The same study also calls for caution in these projections, bearing in mind that other technological innovations can undermine the rise of the sectors (2). It is therefore a question of not falling into blind extraction that would deplete resources and have disastrous environmental consequences.

old world thinking

Above all, isn’t it urgent to resist the temptation to bet on the energetic transition of old-world thinking? That the electric car is within the reach of all budgets, who would complain? But on condition that the assumptions underlying the ecological transition are fully extended: the distinction between forced and displaced displacements, the possibility of bringing together housing and employment areas, the preference for public transport over individual vehicles, etc. generally a relationship with technology favoring a vision of innovation that is more social than technical.

The answer to the yellow vest movement is not an electric car for everyone. It is collective and requires opening up rural and peri-urban territories through adapted transport, in which electric vehicles will play a role. That they can be shared should be a goal!

Environmental assessment to follow. In Beauvoir, the concentration of lithium is around 0.9 to 1%, that is, about 100 tons of rock must be extracted for one ton of this metal. Imerys gave guarantees: reduction of toxic discharges and water consumption, underground installation, etc. Emissions from operations would be 8 kg of CO2 per ton of lithium, compared to 16 to 20 kg in Australia and China.

democratic debate

But let’s be honest, a green mine doesn’t exist! In France, Barbara Pompili had created a stir in 2021 by raising the possibility of exploring a lithium deposit located at Finistère in Tréguennec under a Natura 2000 classified site managed by the Conservatoire du Litoral. Like Tréguennec, the Beauvoir mine is a kind of precipitate of the difficulties of implementing the ecological transition, which must lead to the preservation of biodiversity and the transformation of the industrial apparatus. The temptation to sacrifice biodiversity to produce differently – in the name of greening – is still very strong, as the idea of ​​protecting nature remains difficult to impose in political and economic circles.

How, then, not to plead democratic debate procedures that make it possible to expose the intricacies of this type of reindustrialization and make them elements of an ecological society project? Justifying them from above in the name of “climate” in a joint communication between a government and a big company is hardly a panacea and can lead, if these projects become more numerous, to great suspicion and renewed protests.

It remains to imagine the appropriate frameworks for these debates where the complexity of the issues will undoubtedly dispute it with the expression of contradictory interests, and where the global, the European and the local will directly confront each other. Once again, ecology invites us to democratic inventiveness to build the social project it demands. Popular ecology, the one that addresses everyone, has this price.

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