Green Dealings – Negotiating Lithium between South America and Europe for Batteries that Fuel a Just Energy Transition

How does the role of lithium in the emerging energy regime challenge or reproduce unequal relations between producer and consumer regions, and can it pave the way for a sustainable and just energy transition?

Project Summary

In the context of climate change mitigation, energy transition now seems inevitable. Lithium batteries are at the core of this revolution for energy storage in general and electric vehicles in particular. As part of this response, major industrial countries are implementing industrial policies that promote domestic battery production. The European Union has launched an ambitious “Green Deal” that includes a “European Battery Alliance”. It now aims at setting new social and environmental standards to produce the world’s “greenest” batteries.

However, batteries require large amounts of raw materials such as lithium, highly concentrated geographically, particularly in South America. The new European standards for sustainable batteries may reform historically unequal relations with this resource-dependent region. Yet, challenging these inequalities will depend on how actors engage in different forms of negotiation along the lithium battery chain.

Therefore, the main question the project addresses is:

  • How does the critical role of lithium for batteries in the emerging “green” energy regime shape the relations between South American lithium producers and the EU, and can it pave the way for a sustainable and just energy transition?

This research draws on critical approaches to raw material governance from political ecology and economic geography, among others. Methodologically, we will combine two strategies. Our first goal will be to study negotiations between diverse European and South American actors along the lithium battery chain, paying particular attention to how they are shaped by “green” norms and standards (“Green Dealings”). It will also study the other way around, how norms and standards undergo the influence of these actors.

Second, it will facilitate conversation and exchange between these actors in stakeholder engagement activities and try to see how the relations between the two regions could lead to a just energy transition. To ease the process, we will bring together a multidisciplinary group of scholars from Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, UK, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, and leading experts engaged in policy-making from several key international organisations (ECLAC, EU-LAC, IADB, UNCTAD).

Academic Output

Executive Summary

The climate crisis lends weight to the political imperative for an energy transition in Europe. Meanwhile, the production of lithium-ion batteries, primarily for electromobility, has increased demand for minerals like lithium, found in high concentration in the South American salt flats. The project examined the governance schemes under negotiation within and between Europe and South America relevant to the lithium-ion battery value chain. Engaging diverse stakeholders in qualitative and quantitative social science methods, we identified points of consensus and divergence on the significant social justice and sustainability challenges faced. While the ‘chain’ is a simple metaphor for connecting political economic relations across places, ‘governing the chain’ uniquely from the position of Europe is potentially insufficient to ensure sustainability, justice, and secure critical mineral supply.


In light of the climate crisis, there is a broad consensus regarding the imperative to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As global energy production emits 2⁄3 of GHGs, an energy transition is unavoidable and, as transportation represents 35% of energy use and about a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions, it is at the core of this energy transition. The shift to electric vehicles is at present the main alternative to combustion engines. Until recently the main limitation was that the energy density and practicality of fossil fuels was hard to compete with. The development of high density batteries based on lithium was pivotal in driving progress along this trajectory. The three major economic blocs now aim to strongly increase the proportion of zero emissions vehicles (electric and other technologies like hydrogen fuel cells) in the coming decades (all new cars and vans sold in the European Union by 2035,1 50% by 2030 in the USA,2 40% by 2030 in China according to national plans3).

Yet, the rapid expansion of electromobility in recent years has significantly increased the demand for certain minerals. In particular, according to estimations from the International Energy Agency, lithium is forecast to experience rapid growth in demand (an estimated 250’000 tons in 2030 over 130’000 t in 2022). Therefore, the “governance” of lithium has gained importance in public debate and captured the attention of many sectors, including governments, companies, communities, non-governmental organizations, and academics.

Research Team

Marc Hufty 
The Graduate Institute

Diego Silva
The Graduate Institute

Jonas Köppel 
Principal Member
The Graduate Institute

Daniela Sanchez-Lopez 
Principal Member
Cambridge University

Barbara Jerez 
Principal Member
University of Concepción

Manuel Oliveira 
Principal Member
Higher University of San Andrés


Morgan Scoville-Simonds
Principal Member
University of Agder

Martin Obaya
Principal Member
University of San Martin





Policy domains


Host Institution