When the story broke yesterday that Afghanistan has $1 trillion in untouched mineral deposits, you could almost hear the course of history changing. Whether the country’s newfound wealth will bring it prosperity or the resource curse remains to be seen, but the rugged land just abruptly entered modernity. Among the minerals found in abundance are rare earth elements utilized in many green technologies and lithium, which is the key ingredient in batteries for computers and electric vehicles.
Whether or not Afghanistan‘s mineral wealth will rescue the troubled nation, it will almost certainly be good news for electric vehicle makers and buyers. Demand for lithium has skyrocketed in recent years, but production has lagged behind, leaving prices high. Lithium is extremely volatile, and mining it takes significant capital investment. Bolivia — which before this weekend claimed the monicker “the Saudi Arabia of lithium” — has shunned foreign investment in its mother lode. But with the U.S. all-in on rebuilding Afghanistan and China already queuing up for the country’s minerals, start-up money won’t be in short supply.
More lithium will bring prices down on electric vehicles, helping industrialized nations cut carbon emissions. But what if the nascent Afghan mining boom employs scorched earth techniques? As the Times reports, “Afghanistan has never had much heavy industry before, it has little or no history of environmental protection either.” With lithium’s far-reaching green applications, it would be particularly tragic to see it mined destructively.