The Atacama salt flat is a majestic, high-altitude expanse of gradations of white and grey, peppered with red lagoons and ringed by towering volcanoes. It took me a moment to get my bearings on my first visit, standing on this windswept plateau of 3,000 sq km (1,200 sq miles). A vertiginous drive had taken me and two other researchers through a sandstorm, a rainstorm, and the peaks and valleys of this mountainous region of northern Chile. The sun bore down on us intensely – the Atacama desert boasts the Earth’s highest levels of solar radiation, and only parts of Antarctica are drier.

I had come to the salt flat to research an emerging environmental dilemma. In order to stave off the worst of the accelerating climate crisis, we need to rapidly reduce carbon emissions. To do so, energy systems around the world must transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Lithium batteries play a key role in this transition: they power electric vehicles and store energy on renewable grids, helping to cut emissions from transportation and energy sectors. Underneath the Atacama salt flat lies most of the world’s lithium reserves; Chile currently supplies almost a quarter of the global market. But extracting lithium from this unique landscape comes at a grave environmental and social cost.

In the mining installations, which occupy more than 78 sq km (30 sq miles) and are operated by multinationals SQM and Albemarle, brine is pumped to the surface and arrayed in evaporation ponds resulting in a lithium-rich concentrate; viewed from above, the pools are shades of chartreuse. The entire process uses enormous quantities of water in an already parched environment. As a result, freshwater is less accessible to the 18 indigenous Atacameño communities that live on the flat’s perimeter, and the habitats of species such as Andean flamingoes have been disrupted. This situation is exacerbated by climate breakdown-induced drought and the effects of extracting and processing copper, of which Chile is the world’s top producer. Compounding these environmental harms, the Chilean state has not always enforced indigenous people’s right to prior consent.

These facts raise an uncomfortable question that reverberates around the world: does fighting the climate crisis mean sacrificing communities and ecosystems? The supply chains that produce green technologies begin in extractive frontiers like the Atacama desert. And we are on the verge of a global boom in mining linked to the energy transition. A recent report published by the International Energy Agency states that meeting the Paris greement’s climate targets would send demand skyrocketing for the “critical minerals” used to produce clean energy technologies. The figures are particularly dramatic for the raw materials used to manufacture electric vehicles: by 2040, the IEA forecasts that demand for lithium will have increased 42 times relative to 2020 levels.

These resources have become a new flashpoint for geopolitical tensions. In the US and Europe, policymakers increasingly talk about a “race” to secure the minerals linked to energy transition and shore up domestic supplies; the idea of a “new cold war” with China is frequently invoked. As a result, northern Portugal and Nevada are slated for new lithium projects. Across the global lithium frontier, from Chile to the western United States and Portugal, environmental activists, indigenous communities and residents concerned about the threats to agricultural livelihoods are protesting what they see as the greenwashing of destructive mining.

Indeed, the extraction and primary processing of metals and other minerals are responsible for 90% of biodiversity loss and 26% of global carbon emissions. One report estimates that the mining sector produces 100bn tons of waste every year. Extraction and processing are typically water- and energy-intensive, and contaminate waterways and soil. Alongside these dramatic changes to the natural environment, mining is linked to human rights abuses, respiratory ailments, dispossession of indigenous territory and labour exploitation. Once the minerals are wrested from the ground, mining companies tend to accumulate profits and leave behind poverty and contamination. These profits only multiply along the vast supply chains that produce electric vehicles and solar panels. Access to these technologies is highly unequal, and the communities who suffer the harms of extraction are frequently denied its benefits.

The transition to a new energy system is often understood as a conflict between incumbent fossil fuel firms and proponents of climate action. As existential as this conflict is, battles between competing visions of a low-carbon world are intensifying – and they will become increasingly central to politics across the world. These competing visions reflect the reality that there are multiple paths to rapid decarbonisation. The question is not whether to decarbonise, but how.

A transportation system based on individual electric vehicles, for example, with landscapes dominated by highways and suburban sprawl, is much more resource- and energy-intensive than one that favours mass transit and alternatives such as walking and cycling. Likewise, lowering overall energy demand would reduce the material footprint of technologies and infrastructure that connect homes and workplaces to the electricity grid. And not all demand for battery minerals must be sated with new mining: recycling and recovering metals from spent batteries is a promising replacement, especially if governments invest in recycling infrastructure and make manufacturers use recycled content.

Moreover, mining operations should be required to respect international laws protecting indigenous rights to consent, and governments ought to consider outright moratoria on mines in sensitive ecosystems and watersheds. Movements on the ground in Chile are articulating this vision. The Plurinational Observatory of Andean Salt Flats (Opsal, of which I’m a member) links environmental and indigenous activists across the so-called “lithium triangle” of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina and has advocated for holistic regulation of this vulnerable desert wetland, prioritising its intrinsic ecological, scientific and cultural value and respecting communities’ right to participate in its governance.

This alternative vision now has a chance of becoming a reality. In May, progressives swept elections for an assembly tasked with rewriting Chile’s dictatorship-era constitution, and for local and regional offices. Many of the constitutional convention delegates are connected with student, feminist, environmental and indigenous movements; one of them is Cristina Dorador, a microbiologist and a forceful advocate for protecting the salt flat from rampant extraction. Meanwhile, Opsal is working with members of Congress to draft a law that would preserve the salt flats and wetlands currently threatened by lithium and copper mining, and hydroelectric plants.

Chilean activists are clear: there is no zero-sum conflict between fighting climate breakdown and preserving local environments and livelihoods. Indigenous communities in the Atacama desert are also on the frontlines of the devastating impacts of global heating. Rather than an excuse to intensify mining, the accelerating climate crisis should be an impetus to transform the rapacious and environmentally harmful patterns of production and consumption that caused this crisis in the first place.

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