Mining, the Clean Energy Transition, and Justice

by | March 1, 2023

We’ve been doing a lot on electrification lately because it plays a central role in getting to zero emissions. But it’s important that we also zoom out for a comprehensive look at what this major transformation of our energy system entails.

I recently read a fantastic report by the Climate + Community Project called “Achieving Zero Emissions with More Mobility and Less Mining”. It makes a really important point: decarbonization in and of itself isn’t necessarily good enough because how we do it matters a hell of a lot.

You see, different decarbonization pathways have varying:

  • Levels of harm to communities and ecosystems.
  • Timelines to get to zero emissions.
  • Costs.
  • Amounts of resources required.
  • Geopolitical implications.
  • Impacts on the quality of our lives, vibrancy of our communities, and levels of equity.

So not only do we need to get to zero emissions, but we also need to do it in a way that addresses the underlying causes of the planetary emergency in the first place. That means choosing a path that integrates the wellbeing of people, wildlife, ecosystems, and future generations into our core values and decision-making.

We know that we absolutely need to get to zero emissions and stop global heating as soon as possible to have a shot at a future that is safe, healthy, and just. And that doing so requires transforming our entire energy system to run on clean energy rather than fossil fuels.

This means we need to mine a lot more of the materials used in solar, wind, and energy storage technologies. And mining, in turn, typically leads to harming local communities and ecosystems.

Fortunately, a clean energy-powered world will likely require extracting fewer natural resources overall compared to today’s fossil-fuel-powered world.

But how much mining we’ll need for the transition and how it will be done is still completely up in the air.

It begs the question – how many resources do we truly require to meet everyone’s basic needs? What could we do differently to be more efficient with natural resources in order to serve more people with less mining and less harm?

The Climate + Community Project report found that the amount of lithium needed for US vehicles could be reduced by up to 92% in 2050 depending on the level of car dependency, battery size, and recycling. Here’s how the demand for lithium changes across their four scenarios:

A 92% decrease is a lot. It shows that there’s a massive range of how much mining we may need for the transition. And that it will depend on the policy and investment decisions we collectively make starting now.

Will we continue to prioritize cars and make it harder to get by without personally owning our own vehicles? Or will we make the needed investments in our communities to increase and improve public transit, cycling infrastructure, and walkability so our transportation needs are met with fewer resources while improving our quality of life?

Will we continue building up resource-intensive suburban sprawl? Or will we build more housing in cities to increase their density and share all these public amenities with more people?

Will we continue with our linear economy, throwing away resources after using them once, and mining for new resources indefinitely? Or will we maximize the recycling of clean energy materials so we can reuse them and move toward a circular economy where nothing is wasted?

Questions like these matter a lot. Ultimately, they will play a major role in deciding:

  • The amount of mining and the level of harm done to communities and ecosystems during the transition.
  • How quickly we get to zero emissions and stop planetary heating.
  • The level of public health, equity, mobility, and quality of life in communities everywhere.

Let’s take a closer look at these interconnections and what the potential futures we can build may look like.

Minimizing Mining Helps Minimize Harm

First, a little perspective on the scope of global mining waste.

The cube of waste pictured below shows the total volume of the world’s mine tailings (rock and liquid mining waste) that’s currently in 8,500 active, inactive, and closed storage facilities. Altogether, this waste would measure 6 km in height (3.7 miles). And the drop represents how much more mine tailings are created each year. As you can see, the cube of waste is right next to New York City’s skyline, making it look tiny by comparison.

As you may know, there are countless stories of the mining industry wreaking havoc.

The extraction of materials and accompanying waste sites can leave a host of environmental issues in their wake. Forests can be cut down, wildlife and critical ecosystems destroyed, and the air, soil, and water polluted. The supply of freshwater itself can be depleted.

The social impact on frontline communities can also be horrific. People living off the land may struggle to grow food, lose access to drinking water, or suffer adverse health effects from air or water pollution.

Corporations and governments also have a long history of ignoring laws and human rights when it comes to extracting resources. There are plenty of examples of mining companies moving forward on projects without the legally required “Free, prior and informed consent” of local Indigenous communities. This violates the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples which is international law.

Since the Paris Agreement was signed, at least 1,005 people have been killed for trying to defend the land from the extraction of natural resources.

A culture that leads to bullying, sexual harassment, and rape has been reported by mining companies themselves and applies to both employees and locals – often Indigenous women specifically.

Finally, an estimated 40,000 children are working in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo in conditions that experts refer to as modern-day slavery.

Each and every one of these horrific realities on their own is enough reason to change. This is a chance to reimagine how we do things and root our systems in justice.

Pathways to Improving Mining Practices

As mentioned above, minimizing the amount of resources we use seems like an obvious and good first step to help minimize mining and its ongoing harms.

But we also need to find a way to implement and uphold far stronger social and environmental standards for the mining that is done.

Adopting the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance’s Standard for Responsible Mining which was co-created by all relevant stakeholders seems like a good place to start. Earthworks has also been working on this for a while and have some great ideas.

We should also make use of the massive amount of mining waste pictured above before digging any new mines. Researchers in Australia recently discovered that tailings from old Australian copper mines have shockingly high levels of cobalt, with estimates of there being 300,000 tonnes of cobalt in forgotten mine waste from the last 100 years (for perspective, there were 21,000 tonnes of cobalt needed for clean energy in 2020).

Where we do have to mine virgin materials, we should do as Olivia Lazard recommends in this TED Talk:

  • Let science determine where it is safest to mine from an ecological perspective and only mine in those places.
  • “Integrate socioeconomic and ecological regeneration within business models.”
  • Manage these materials, which are needed for survival, collectively under a global public good regime to avoid conflict and planetary breakdown.
  • Invest in circular economic models to reduce our need for energy and materials. And develop more comprehensive ecological assessments for supply chains that account for greenhouse gas emissions, water, soil, biodiversity, material, and energy footprint.
  • Innovate: “All of this can only happen if we start shifting our thinking about innovation. Innovation in our times is about bringing back economic footprint within planetary boundaries. Anything else, even the coolest of new products – if it isn’t aligned with that goal, it’s not innovation. It’s business as usual.”

Clean Energy vs. Fossil Fuels: Comparing Total Material Requirements

The total amount of materials needed to power the world is projected to go down overall as we switch to clean energy, mainly because fossil fuels weigh in at a whopping 50 billion tonnes today.

But the demand for clean energy minerals such as copper, cobalt, lithium, nickel, graphite, and others will be increasing significantly. And if actions aren’t taken to reduce car dependency, reduce the size of cars, and increase recycling, the material requirements for transportation specifically may actually increase overall.

Note: material requirements go down overall, but transportation requirements (the patterned colors) go up. Also, for the record, I dislike the IEA’s level of ambition to decarbonize in this chart – we can and need to get off fossil fuels faster.

Clean energy material requirements would go down even further if you add in recycling. And I think it’s worth noting that once you build clean energy technologies, they’ll last for 10 to 30 years and can be recycled compared to fossil fuels which are burned and need to be dug up constantly. About 40% of the shipping industry exists just to transport fossil fuels around the world. That too will decrease substantially in the transition to clean energy.

Investing in Public and Active Transit Gets Us to Zero Emissions Faster

Research has found that expanding mass transit hastens decarbonization. Vehicle electrification, declines in car usage and ownership, and reductions in the size and weight of personal vehicles (to increase their energy efficiency) are necessary steps that must be pursued in combination to remain within a sectoral carbon budget consistent with limiting to 1.5-2°C of warming” – Achieving Zero Emissions with More Mobility and Less Mining Report

Quite simply, we’ll get to zero emissions much faster if we don’t have to build as many personal vehicles as we do today in the US. Investing in more public and active transit infrastructure will serve more people’s transportation needs with fewer resources and costs overall.

If we build a clean energy transportation system that continues today’s level of car dependency, we would need a lot more clean energy minerals (e.g. 2x more copper, up to 43x more lithium) to meet demand and build all those cars.

There’s a decent chance the supply of the clean energy minerals needed for the transition may not be able to keep up with demand in that scenario because it would require opening hundreds of new mines. And it takes about 16 years to open a new mine on average.

Not only would more demand than supply slow the transition because people would have to wait longer to get the materials they need to build clean technologies, but it would also make clean energy technologies more expensive, slowing the transition even further.

We can’t afford to delay decarbonization.

So, it would be wise to prioritize walkability, cycling infrastructure, scooters, trains, buses, etc. over personal vehicle ownership. This will increase resource efficiency in the transportation sector, reduce the total amount of materials we need, and help us get to zero emissions faster.

Multisolving & Co-Benefits Can Bring More People Onboard!

All of the actions we take to increase resource efficiency will reduce the amount of mining and the level of harm done to communities and ecosystems during the transition. They’ll also reduce the amount of time it takes to get to zero emissions and stop planetary heating.

So if your city invests in public and active transit and reduces car dependency, you’ve all helped to protect more ecosystems and communities.

Or if you personally can go car-free and instead rely on public transit, active transit, and car sharing, you’ve helped to reduce demand for resources and accelerated decarbonization.

Hopefully this helped connect some dots in understanding how the choices we make in our homes, communities, and companies can ripple around the world and into the future.

Not that we need any more reasons than what’s outlined above to invest in mass transit and active transit for our communities, but to help get even more people onboard when advocating for these people and justice-centered actions, here are a few:

  • Fewer cars in cities leads to:
    • More safety → fewer car crashes and deaths.
    • More public space and outdoor dining options.
    • Less air pollution (even with EVs, fewer cars means less particulate matter from braking).
    • Less noise pollution.
  • More access to public and active transportation leads to:
    • Healthier people as more choose to walk and bike.
    • A more vibrant city with more people out and about.
    • People save money by not needing to buy a car and pay the taxes, insurance, and maintenance that come with it.
    • More transportation and economic justice.

The way our cities are today is not the result of some natural law. Places like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Paris, and Vienna did not become north stars of mass and active transit overnight or by chance. They did it by taking steps, year after year, to keep prioritizing people’s wellbeing over cars. And the impact of these efficient choices ripples through supply chains around the world.

The policy and investment decisions we make in our homes, cities, and companies impact the level of public health, equity, mobility, and quality of life in communities everywhere.

I find hope in knowing that all of the changes that we need to make are within our power. And that the climate movement is, or will soon be, the biggest movement the world has ever seen.

We can change things for the better – especially when we find the courage to speak up, collaborate, and organize with the people around us.

And as Rachel eloquently noted in editing this piece for you:

“I find hope in understanding that there are clear and realistic alternatives to not only get us off fossil fuels but to actually fundamentally shift the systems and processes that created these intersecting crises in the first place. We’re being shown that we don’t have to just accept the deadly status quo, decarbonization can actually be a regeneratively transformative process on all levels if we choose it to be. That is incredibly empowering and hopeful to me.”

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