Can We Avoid Creating a Worse Environmental Crisis
While trying to Solve the Climate One?
Everyone knows what needs to be done to bring down CO2 levels; pump less of it into the atmosphere. You do that by, mostly, burning less fossil fuels. Instead, it’s all about mass production of electric vehicles, building massive electric storage installations, solar panels farms and monster wind turbines. More consumption to cure the cancer of over consumption. Ah, yes, and tree planting. Anything but serious reduction of fossil fuel consumption.
The voices calling for careful considerations of the impacts the transition to clean energy will cause are drowned by the misplaced optimism of a green future. Few are asking common sense questions that, if not answered now could easily create a worse environmental disaster, plus end up compounding the climate crisis. The great-big elephant in the room few want to acknowledge is the destruction to people and the environment that the hunger for the so-called green energy metals will cause: mainly copper, cobalt, nickel and cobalt.
Because of the growing demand and consequent high prices these materials will fetch, mining companies will end up operating mega mines in places that would otherwise be politically, environmentally socially and /or economically unwise. These include ecologically fragile sites, biodiversity hotspots, indigenous territories, and politically unstable countries.
Some mines will deforest thousands of hectares and contaminate water resources with heavy metals. It-s just the nature of large-scale mining. Deforestation, especially in tropical countries, will significantly impoverishing the Earth’s biodiversity. While one of the resolutions adopted at the COP 26 to stop deforestation by 2030 will help somewhat, 10 more years of deforestation will speed up reaching several tipping points regarding climate, and will irremediably ravage biodiversity. Species cannot be brought back in 10, or 100 years’ time. Neither can their role in an ecosystem once they are extinct.
The biodiversity crisis, it’s worth mentioning, is considered almost as critical as the climate crisis. They are intimately interrelated. Climate change is leading to loss of biodiversity. Meanwhile, loss of biodiversity makes ecosystems less resilient, which then are less able to absorb CO2… and we all know what follows. The environmental degradation that accompanies mining will affect other key ecosystem services such as air and water purification, regulating stream and river flows, and controlling erosion and flooding. These and dozen more ecosystem services plus human and collective rights are critically endangered. If we act now, we can at least try to limit the most damaging of the impacts.
Then there are the human rights violations that are so closely tied in to mining. Many communities, be them indigenous or campesino, will not agree to relocate willingly. Besides violating fundamental human rights, forced relocation upsets all facets of communal and personal life, identity, livelihoods and the connection with the land. And, given the amount of the misnomer called the green energy metals needed to feed the other misnomer, the “clean energy transition”, forced relocation will be part and parcel of many mining projects.
According to the International Energy Agency in order to “….hit net-zero globally by 2050, would require six times more mineral inputs in 2040 than today”. (Emphasis is the author’s)
The minerals considered by the IEA report above are copper, nickel, cobalt and lithium, but also graphite and rare earths. They are sometimes referred to as the critical minerals. Given the power and greed of the fossil fuel barons, and relative failure of the COP26, it is extremely unlikely the world will reach net zero emissions by 2050, or anywhere near 2050. Even so, considering a less optimistic scenario, still calls for a quadrupling of mineral inputs from today’s level. That’s one hell of an increase in such a relatively short time. Especially when considering the social, cultural and environmental impacts mineral extraction is having right now.
Material usage electric vs conventional cars
Following are just some of the questions we should be asking ourselves in order to avoid deepening the environmental crisis: Where will those minerals come from? Is there enough of these metals in the world to make sure that not only the wealthy citizens of the North will reap the benefits from them? What will the social, cultural and environmental impacts be of extracting and processing them? What steps can be taken to assure that local communities’ rights are not violated and don’t end up paying the costs of producing these minerals? What will happen if by way of trying to fix the climate crisis we create an even bigger environmental crisis? And, what can we do now to avert that scenario?
It is understandably hard to grasp the amount of materials or land use that the energy transition will entail. Sixty seven tons of pure copper goes into each off-shore medium-sized wind turbine. A plug in electric vehicle, on the other hand, needs 2 o 4 times more copper than standard internal combustion vehicle. That same electric vehicle uses the equivalent of 10,000 batteries worth of lithium in smart phones for its battery. Meanwhile, energy storage installations are set to increase capacity more than 20 times current levels. Nickel production is no less devastating. For example the contamination generated by the Norlisk nickel mine and processing plant has devastated at least 350,000 hectares of forests in Russia’s Artic region. Nickel, as well as cobalt, are essential components of vehicle batteries. Cobalt has its own horrific dark side.
In its analysis of the mineral needs for a net-zero future, the IEA did not include non-mineral materials. Balsa wood is one of these. Because of its light weight, it is in highly coveted for the blades that power the wind turbines. Even though the Balsa fever has only recently been an issue, it is already causing social and environmental problems in the Amazon.
A matter of scale
Most people don’t have the slightest idea of the impacts of large-scale mining. A single such mining project can easily impact thousands of hectares of land. Land which can be covered in primary tropical forest harboring dozens of endangered species of animals and plants, as well as protecting key watersheds, and mitigating the effects of climate change. The same forested land could also be a major or potential tourist draw and be providing drinking water to thousands. It could also be the source of food, fiber, medicines and building materials for local communities. Or be held sacred by local populations.
Because of decreasing metal content found in most metal ores, which in the case of copper can be less than 0.5% per ton (yields 5 kilograms of pure copper per 1000kg of ore), the environmental impacts are hard to imagine. In the case of the La Escondida copper mine, in Chile’s arid Atacama desert, just one of the mine’s infrastructure, the tailings dam- which is used to store toxic waste product from copper processing- measures 5,500 hectares (13,375 acres). These damns are known to collapse, annihilating everything in their path. In 2019, for example, the collapse of the tailings dam at Samarco mining operations, owned by Brazilian miner Vale, killed 270 Brazilians and devasted the river system in the vicinity of the town of Brumadinho. Four years earlier, a similar disaster killed 19 locals and wiped out the town of Bento Rodrigues, creating the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history. The toxic sludge reached the Atlantic ocean, 660 kilometers away. Experts say it could take decades for the river system to recover, if at all. The iron ore mine was co-owed by BHP Billiton, the world’s largest miner, and considered a responsible corporation.
The Dirty Truths of the Clean Energy Metals
The low content in the metal ores is compounded by natural occurring contaminants. Heavy metals, like lead, arsenic and cadmium are almost invariably found alongside copper. Nickel ores are likewise contaminated with heavy metals. Then there is the issue of scale. The largest open-pit operations can move almost one million tons of material (both ore and waste) per day. They do this 365 days a year. To break up the hard rock that these metals are found in, as well as to access the metals, millions of pounds of explosives are used. The Bingham Canyon copper mine in Utah, for example, uses 1,000 tons of explosives per day. And, the deeper the miners have to go to access the metals, the more dire the environmental impacts. Diesel is also key component of the blasting material. Companies, in fact, are cautious about releasing their product’s real CO2’s footprint (or the amount of toxic substances). Given that a single haul truck can consume thousands of liters of diesel per day to transport the broken up mineralized subsoil to the surface for milling, the reasons should not be hard to discern. And yet, this is only for the extraction phase. The refining of metals like copper consume much more energy than the actual extraction.
Lithium and Water.
Though most lithium deposits are not usually located deep underground, nevertheless operations can dry up aquifers, affect the access and quality of water of communities. Lithium operations also use an inordinate amount of water. In some cases, up to 500,000 gallons to produce just one ton of lithium.
The impacts of nickel production are not much different than copper. This is due to, as in copper, to the low metal content of the ore, which typically varies between 1% and 2% of the ore. Then there is the social and environmental havoc caused by cobalt and the extraction of other green energy minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mining in the DRC has not only left environmental disasters, but also fueled violent irregular armed groups and debilitating corruption. The country, in spite of being rich in mineral resources, including cobalt and copper, is one of the world’s poorest.
One could sum up the situation regarding mining and the green metals in one simple phrase from a 2020 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development report:
“Most consumers are only aware of the ‘clean’ aspects of electric vehicles,” says Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD’s director of international trade. “The dirty aspects of the production process are out of sight.”
The Numbers Game
One deeply troubling aspect of the new green metal rush is that the miners and governments will keep going out of their way to avoid to correctly value the other types of wealth within a mining concession, including the value that ecosystem services provide local communities and the world. Some of these are mentioned above, and include erosion prevention, regulating stream flows, biodiversity conservation, and ironically, mitigating the effects of climate change. There is a reason for such perversity. For if mining companies were forced to put a real price tag on ecosystem services and all other kinds of wealth within a proposed mining project that would be negatively affected, the balance would be invariably tilt in favor of protecting these areas. Especially if a country is concerned about its future. As you can surmise, this kind of information is the last thing that mining companies and the buyers of their “green energy metals” want to acknowledge. At least publicly.
Mining and Poverty
Then there is the issue of poverty. Cases like that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, mentioned above, and Zaire, two important copper exporters, highlight a well-known curse associated with the dependence of developing countries on exporting raw minerals to rich ones. Niger, exporter of uranium, and Ghana exporter of gold, are both affected by high rates of poverty, just one aspect of the phenomenon that has come to be known as the natural resource curse. Country afflicted with this phenomenon are rich in natural resources, but afflicted by poverty, corruption and authoritarian governments. African nations are not alone. In the Andes, Bolivia, after centuries of enriching other countries with its tin and silver, is still plagued by endemic poverty (it is now opened to lithium investments). Meanwhile, the some of the poorest Mexican municipalities are precisely where most gold miners are located. The same applies to the mining provinces in Peru. Besides being plagued by poverty, high rates of corruption and authoritarian governments, several of these nations are also afflicted by violent conflicts.
These are the countries and sites that some companies are nowadays willing to “look at twice” for investment opportunities. Until the demand for the green energy metals raised the price of these commodities, they were strictly off limits.
There is a real possibility that what I am presenting will be seen as alarmist and exaggerated in order to make a point. No way can mining these minerals produce such drastic environmental and social impacts. Let me bring it all home by using an example not too distant from where I live; the Intag region of northwest Ecuador. Approximately 15 kilometers away as the parrot flies, several transnational mining corporations have been trying to develop a large-scale open pit copper mine. The Llurimagua mining concession is being operated by the world’s largest copper producer, CODELCO. The site where in the 1990’s copper was found is within the Tropical Andes, the most diverse of the world’s Biodiversity Hotspot. It is covered in primary cloud forests, which are not only protecting dozens of species of animals facing extinction, but also 43 sources of rivers and streams. All oof this in one mining concession of less than 5,000 hectares (12,500 acres). Some animals that make their home in the orchid-rich forest are critically endangered. These include a fish species and three frogs, two of which have only been reported within the mining concession and nowhere else on the planet. Several primates are also on the list of endangered species, including the Brown-headed Spider Monkey, one of the most threatened primates in the world. Pumas, ocelots, and the Andean bear, are likewise inhabitants of this biodiverse wonderland.
A 1990’s preliminary environmental impact study prepared by experts for a small copper mine in this area predicted that the mining operations would deforest so much land that the local climate would dry up. The study also called for contamination of rivers with lead, arsenic, chromium and cadmium. Four communities would have to be relocated to make room for the mine and all the accompanying infrastructure. The study did not analyze the impact to thousands of farmers who depend on rain for their livelihood. Then, the following year, the company inferred that the copper deposit could be five times larger. In 2018, Codelco reported that the Llurimagua copper deposit could be much, much larger. The Llurimagua area is not, by any means, unique.
These are precisely the biological and cultural jewels, and human rights, that the growing demand for the green metals are putting at risk. Companies know this, and are taking steps to disassociate themselves from the loss of reputation that will come from producing or buying metals from these sites. Car manufactures are also joining in the collective washing. It is what is motivating mining corporations and the buyers of their products to join organizations that will supply them with certificates of compliance with social and environmental standards. Instead of certifying the companies, the organizations are happy certifying individual mines, which means a company can sell its reputation based on one mine, but produce and sell dirty metals from the rest of its portfolio. Currently, there are dozens of these green washing outfits. Keep tuned because more are bound to sprout up in the coming months and years.
The main objective of this text is not to be alarmist, nor to prevent the energy transition. It is to draw attention to its peril and consequences. And, to motivate a serious discussion in order to avoid the impacts to people and the environment briefly detailed above. And it can be done.
The most important measures to take right now is to create red lines with local stakeholders in order to keep mining and other extractive industries out of these special sites. One of the most important is respecting the right of local populations to decide their own future. Consultations need to be genuine, and if consent is given for extractive activities, it needs to be done freely, without pressure and only after thoroughly knowing the proposed activities’ impacts. Sacred lands, biodiversity hotspots, native forests and habitats harboring endangered species must be off limits to mining. Given that mining can contaminate water in perpetuity, mining projects that pose a risk of contaminating water sources with heavy metals or cancerous substances must be strictly prohibited. Mining too, has no place in the world’s seabed or the Artic. These are just some of the no-go sites that corporations and governments must exclude from mining if we are not to aggravate the existing environmental crisis and create new ones.
More than enough damage has been done to cultures, species and whole ecosystems by not knowing enough about them, and then sacrificing them in the name of economic development. Now it is being done in the name of the clean energy transition. A transition that will be anything but clean and just if the materials come from these special places.
Isn’t that the same mentality that got us where we are today?
P. 1 Unctad Report COMMODITIES AT A GLANCE Special issue on strategic battery raw materials2020 Report