At the end of this week (31 October), governments will gather in Glasgow for Cop26 hoping to move forward on the promise of a zero-carbon world by 2050. That a move away from fossil fuels to clean energy is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change is widely accepted. Perhaps less well understood is how the mineral intensity of that transition could impact local communities and environments.
Around two dozen minerals are needed to produce today’s rapidly growing clean energy technologies. As a consequence, demand for these minerals will surge.
The International Energy Agency predicts that production of transition minerals will need to increase six times to achieve a zero-carbon world by mid-century. While demand for certain critical minerals such as lithium and cobalt is predicted to soar, metals such as copper and iron, already extensively mined for sectors such as construction, will also be needed in larger quantities.
Mining our way to a greener future, however, puts a sector long associated with environmental damage and abuses of human rights at the heart of the transition.
“The extractive sector as a whole is, unfortunately, almost synonymous with human rights violations,” said Jessie Cato of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.
Drawing on previous work by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, New Statesman analysis finds that large proportions of minerals key to the transition are located in fragile countries. Two-thirds of the world’s cobalt – critical to smartphone and laptop batteries – is located in fragile or highly fragile states, with over half in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where allegations of child labour, armed group financing and large-scale corruption are widespread. Almost all of the world’s rare Earth reserves used in wind turbine magnets are found in states that score poorly for transparency.
Similarly, seven of 12 key minerals we analysed are found in countries that Freedom House has deemed to be unfree or partly free.
While recent studies have questioned whether mineral dependency is necessarily a “resource curse” for countries, large reserves of transition minerals in vulnerable states coupled with expected surges in their demand point to potential for increased tensions and violence.
Significant human rights abuse allegations have already arisen from the mining of transition minerals. The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre has retrospectively tracked 304 allegations linked to 115 companies that are major global or regional producers of six commodities critical to the energy transition (cobalt, copper, lithium, manganese, nickel and zinc).
As demand from green technologies and supply chain fears exposed during the pandemic leads to more exploration and expedited licensing processes, Cato is worried that human rights abuses will increase. Impacts related to water (which concern a third of allegations) are particularly likely to escalate in indigenous communities. These communities are set to “bear the brunt, while also already feeling impacts of climate change on water supply”, she said.
More environmental defenders are killed for opposing mining than any other industry, and allegations of human rights abuses and environmental degradation have long plagued the sector. Highlighting such concerns in the context of mining for the energy transition has, however, come relatively late, said Anthony Bebbington, Ford Foundation’s director of natural resources and climate change. This tardiness, he explained, is partly due to the difficulty of reconciling the pressing need for the energy transition with the rights of communities living in areas where minerals are found. Concerns that assertive arguments against extraction could be used to call the energy transition into question have also perhaps contributed to caution, he added.
“It’s challenging to find a narrative on energy transition that fosters and favours relatively rapid transition, and at the same time build into that narrative the importance of recognising the potential rights and environmental impacts of that,” he said.
Eleonore Lebre, a mining researcher at the University of Queensland (UQ), said there is no inevitability about an increase in mining being synonymous with an increase in social and environmental damage. She led a team that quantified possible environmental, social and governance risks from 6,888 mining projects covering 20 transition minerals.
“[What we identified] are pre-existing risk conditions, but the mining company can potentially reduce those risks by managing them proactively,” said Lebre. UQ is collaborating with companies in Chile’s Atacama region – one of the driest places on Earth – to explore how desalinated seawater could provide a sustainable water supply for mining and communities.
Some extractive companies are working with renewables companies. Tesla and mining giants Glencore, China Molybdenum and Eurasian Resources Group are piloting a system to trace cobalt that ends up in electric vehicles. (Tesla and Glencore were among the companies named in a 2019 lawsuit over Congolese child cobalt mining deaths). "The renewable energy sector is helping push the mining sector into spaces that it wouldn’t go into by itself,” said Cato.
Aidan Davy of the industry body International Council on Mining and Metals believes that the frameworks in place are sufficient and that the industry is improving standardisation. “The critical question really is, ‘Are these [frameworks] being broadly applied by enough companies?’” he said. “The more responsible operators”, in his view, do apply them.
“Where it gets tougher is in operating environments such as Guinea, for example, which is really rich in bauxite deposits. There, we see really responsible mine operators with incredibly high ESG standards operating right alongside operators that have got far lower standards.”
Davy said there is a risk that some companies will seize upon the imperative to supply critical transition minerals as a justification for cutting corners – especially risky in fragile environments. Such places are where “the quality of governance becomes incredibly important”, he said.
While international treaties and governance mechanisms are lacking, some countries and regions have developed their own human rights due diligence laws, such as the EU’s proposed legislation on mandatory supply chain due diligence. “This will make companies much more accountable to human rights abuses within their supply chains,” said Cato. “Everything we’ve seen from the sector thus far is voluntary, and I think that’s a really big difference.
“Climate change is the biggest threat to human rights, but we cannot address climate change through a lens that perpetuates harm.”