Mineral Mining: the dark side of the green energy revolution

Sustainable Leaders | Global

By George Blake, Kingfisher Writer

Published November 29th, 2021

The genuine momentum around a ‘green revolution’ towards a low-carbon economy is undoubtedly a hugely positive development. Although not all is rosy. Green technologies typically require more minerals than their more carbon intensive predecessors and these minerals are frequently sourced from mines associated with a huge suite of environmental, social, and ethical problems.

Recent momentum within global climate policy has provided the much needed clarity to mobilise private finance away from fossil fuels. This energy transition will form the backbone of the global fight against climate change, alleviate the numerous health concerns associated with fossil fuels, and provide new opportunities for growth in many countries. Ultimately, it will benefit us all, but this should not mask the potential negatives associated with such a transition.

Aerial view of a huge mineral in the Atacama desert. | Carsten Brink / Flickr

The principal concern around the green energy revolution is heightened demand for minerals, with green technologies, such as wind farms and electric vehicles, requiring nine and six times more minerals than gas-fired power plants and conventional vehicles, respectively. Since 2010, as the share of renewables in the energy mix has increased, the average amount of minerals needed for a new unit of power generation has risen by 50%.

This increased dependency on minerals is raising concerns around the feasibility of the green energy revolution and its potential environmental impact.

These minerals are sourced via mining, which is associated with a huge swath of environmental issues including air pollution, soil and water contamination, deforestation, intensive water and energy use, and the disposal of toxic residuals. Furthermore, mining can also have detrimental impacts on humans and societies through severe occupational risk, child and slave labour, sexual abuse, armed conflict, and corruption.

Despite said issues, for emerging economies where mining forms a central economic activity, such as Mongolia, Guinea, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Chile, Peru, and South Africa, increased global demand will provide an opportunity for higher investment, exports, employment, and fiscal revenues.

Increased global demand for minerals could offer an alternative source of income for the Congolese people, many of whom are currently dependent on subsistence farming and agriculture | USAID / Flickr

However, whether such development would precipitate significant improvements in living standards is questionable, as in many cases, there is little evidence correlating natural resource abundance with human well-being. For example, Africa possesses 30% of the world’s oil and minerals, 14% of the world’s population, but is home to 43% of the world’s poor.

The recent explosion in the mining of cobalt—a critical component of the lithium batteries used in electric vehicles—within the southern DRC has been associated with child labour, low pay (less than two dollars a day), brutal working conditions, and deaths among hand-dug artisanal mines. These artisanal mines account for at least 15% to 20% of the global cobalt supply, and once mixed into the supply chain, it becomes impossible to trace.

Much is made of the need to ensure a ‘just transition’, which if genuine, requires us to consider all aspects of the energy system, including the material supply system, of which mining is a central part. Whereas in reality, public discourse in richer countries is skewed towards discussions around job losses in phasing-out industries or energy price hikes for consumers, and far less time is given to the difficult questions surrounding sourcing and supplying the minerals required to facilitate our new found low-carbon economies.

Men and boys work within dangerous hand-dug tunnels across southern DRC. The cobalt sourced from these artisanal mines is used in our phone and car batteries, as the majority of companies can not verify their supply chain is free of child labour. | Fairphone / Flickr

Yet these questions are critical, as in the short to medium term, emerging economies specialised in mining cannot shut these sectors down, and the global economy would struggle to find the alternatives required. Transition plans must explicitly consider mining to ensure environmental problems are not simply shifted towards less economically developed countries.

Ideas around impact investing or global green standards, such as the Fair Cobalt Alliance, are being discussed, but the risk is simply being used as tools for companies to engage in greenwashing. Unfortunately, this is highly likely within an industry where problematic activities are both physically and emotionally distant from consumers.

Other forces pushing for change are social movements, one example being those seen in Argentina, where mining is limited or forbidden in seven of the 15 provinces with large mineral deposits. However, utilising the transformative potential of such local movements to drive change at a global scale is challenging.

Global demand for clean energy and transport in the Western world should not be associated with environmental degradation elsewhere. If not, issues such as mining-related water pollution, as seen here in Bolivia, will fundamentally undermine our green credentials. | Water Alternatives Photos / Flickr

Critically, without coordination, any national restrictions to limit or control mining activities will likely cause companies to relocate elsewhere, depriving that country of potentially critical employment and income.

Hence, as with all aspects of climate change, an equitable energy transition will require global attention, commitment, and coordination, else our green revolution may not be so green after all.

Featured Image: The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) | Flickr

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