How to Fix Mining for the Green Energy Explosion

Watershed Sentinel

Are the mining industry’s human and environmental harms “just the price of transitioning away from fossil fuels”? According to a new report, no.

by Gavin MacRae, February 22, 2021

From Argentina to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Canada to Papua New Guinea, sky-high demand for metals and minerals integral to a renewable energy revolution will cause environmental and social collateral damage – without reforms to mining and society, that is.

This is the warning from Turning Down the Heat: Can We Mine Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis,1 a report by MiningWatch Canada born from a conference of nearly 200 academics, researchers, grassroots representatives, and activists.

Driven by demand for electric vehicle batteries and renewable energy infrastructure, the need for lithium, graphite, nickel, cobalt, platinum-group and rare earth elements is primed to explode. The World Bank predicts that production of many of the minerals could increase nearly 500% by 2050.2 For cobalt, lithium, and nickel, projected demand is greater than known reserves.3 [For more on the EV connection see “Electric vehicles: the good, the bad, the context” in Watershed Sentinel, Februrary-March 2020].

MiningWatch says that growth could cause ecological damage that would affect whole regions and watersheds, “posing a long term threat through toxic contamination and massive mine waste dumps.”

After tripling in some regions in the last decade, mining waste already represents the largest source of solid waste in Canada and the US, the report says, dwarfing waste from municipalities and industry. “The nascent renewable energy-fuelled mining boom is already having dramatic social and environmental impacts, including on Indigenous and human rights, in many places, both domestically and internationally.”

The narrative fostered by the mining industry is that any harms from the coming bonanza are the price of transitioning away from fossil fuels.

The mining process is also carbon intensive. Estimates by the UN Environment Programme have identified metal mining as responsible for some 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions – 20% when including non-metal minerals such as sand, gravel, and graphite.4

The narrative fostered by the mining industry, the report says, is that any harms from the coming bonanza are the price of transitioning away from fossil fuels. But to safeguard human rights, Indigenous communities, and the environment, that narrative must be “reframed as one of a ‘just transition’ putting environmental justice and social justice ahead of profit and endless economic growth.”

The report sketches out the legislation, industry reforms, and societal changes necessary for that to happen.

The first step is to reduce demand for the finite materials through increased manufacturing efficiency and development of a circular economy with a focus on battery recycling. In a best case scenario, these measures could cut demand 30-40% for some of the metals, according to a study by the Institute for Sustainable Futures and the ENGO Earthworks.5

A corollary to these efforts is to wind down unnecessary mining of gold and diamonds for speculative and luxury markets, and uranium and coal that will be supplanted by renewables.

“Workers cannot be asked to make sacrifices that consumers and investors are not also asked to make.”

The remaining gap could be reduced by scaling back the need for batteries themselves, MiningWatch says, with urban design that supports switching transportation modes away from zero-emissions vehicles altogether.

“Beyond zero emission vehicles, public policies must also aim at reducing the number and sizes of vehicles on the roads for a truly low-carbon, low-material future.”

More broadly still, the report extends the concept of a just transition beyond a renewable energy transition, to reduced consumption by the wealthy and equitable distribution of energy and material wealth.

“Workers cannot be asked to make sacrifices that consumers and investors are not also asked to make,” says the report. “A thoughtful transition provides opportunities for redesign at all levels, from building codes to municipal and regional planning, to global flows of goods and materials – a reorganization of work and production, trade, and consumption.”

On the production end, current mining governance is “clearly inadequate” the report says, and cannot be substituted with voluntary third-party standards. Laws and policies must be strengthened throughout the supply chain to prevent harm and establish real accountability.

Mining interests must have the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous people and local communities before mining exploration or development begins, the report urges, including a process for communities to identify and forbid mining in ecologically, socially, or culturally sensitive areas. In the case of pending commercial deep sea mining, such a “no-go” zone should extend to the entire seabed, the report says.

Where mines are developed, communities must retain control of the placement of mine wastes. Environmental protection needs to be a priority backed by a polluter-pay principle with mandatory financial assurances against contamination, mining disasters, mine closure, remediation and monitoring.

Finally, human rights throughout the mineral supply chain need to be protected with a legal framework and corresponding voluntary measures for responsible investment and purchasing. This would include mandatory due diligence for human rights and transparency, establishment of traceable supply chain controls, and investment criteria for private and public investors.

Originally published by the Watershed Sentinel.