Now that COP26 is over, we’re all being encouraged to embrace the energy transition and invest in solar panels, electric vehicles, wind turbines and other “green” technologies. But that has raised a terrible paradox: the metals and minerals needed to conduct this transition will result in a drastic increase in environmentally dirty mining.
A horrifying November 2021 article in Der Spiegel entitled Mining the Planet to Death: The Dirty Truth About Clean Technologies illuminates the paradox, describing how the “rescue” of green technology “also entails stripping the planet of precious resources.”
“Deposits [of minerals] in the poor south are being exploited so that the rich north can transition to environmental sustainability. At least to a lifestyle that appears sustainable.”
As one of several vivid examples, the authors reveal that a single offshore wind turbine uses 67 tons of copper. To extract that amount of copper, “miners have to move about 50,000 tones of earth and rock, around five times the weight of the Eiffel Tower. The ore is shredded, ground, watered and leached. The bottom line: a lot of nature is destroyed for a little bit of power.”
Most of the mining needed for the energy transition is, and will continue to be, conducted in the global south. The authors state:
“Wind turbines, photovoltaic systems, electric cars, lithium-ion batteries, high-voltage power lines and fuel cells all have one thing in common: inconceivable amounts of raw materials are consumed in their production.”
This is the catch-22 of the so-called green energy transition.
MiningWatch Canada is estimating that “[Three] billion tons of mined metals and minerals will be needed to power the energy transition” – a “massive” increase especially for six critical minerals: lithium, graphite, copper, cobalt, nickel and rare earth minerals.
Today, November 23, MiningWatch Canada and Environmental Justice Atlas launched the EJAtlas Interactive Map to map the energy-transition mining boom’s impact on 25 communities. When contacted in advance of the launch, MiningWatch Canada’s Jamie Kneen said five of the mines are in Quebec, one is in the U.S. and the rest are in Latin America. A press release announcing the report stated:
“This ‘green mining boom’ increasingly affects human rights, Indigenous rights, and the environment. Mining is already rapidly expanding into fragile and biodiverse ecosystems like the Amazon and other rainforests, glacial areas, salt flats, mountain ranges, and wetlands — areas often of vital importance in providing fresh water, sustaining life, and regulating the climate.”
Under the slogan, “We can’t mine our way out of the climate crisis!” MiningWatch Canada joined with other organizations gathered at COP26 to demand that leaders take meaningful action to “reduce overconsumption in wealthy countries” and “shift away from disposable consumption and private transportation.” But they were not listened to, apparently because over-consumption and car-culture is just too embedded in the global north mindset.
Indeed, a September survey conducted by Kantar Public in 10 wealthy countries found that few people are willing to make significant lifestyle changes to combat climate change.
As The Guardian’s George Monbiot recently wrote regarding electric vehicles:
“The mining of the materials required for this massive deployment of batteries and electronics is already destroying communities, ripping down forests, polluting rivers, trashing fragile deserts and, in some cases, forcing people into near-slavery. Our ‘clean, green’ transport revolution is being built with the help of blood cobalt, blood lithium and blood copper. Though the emissions of both carbon dioxide and local pollutants will undoubtedly fall, we are still left with a stupid, dysfunctional transport system that clogs the streets with one-tonne metal boxes in which single people travel.”
The global energy transition is perhaps more red than green after all.
Canada is hoping to get in on the mining boom.
As MiningWatch Canada puts it:
“The Canadian government is currently racing other jurisdictions in promoting itself as the go-to destination for responsible mining, competing to attract investment and build the mines that will fuel the energy transition.”
But that effort has recently run up against another paradox – one might say: a uniquely Canadian paradox.
The U.S. and Canada have agreed upon measures that put in place secure supply lines for the U.S. to obtain critical minerals to be mined in Canada – minerals that the U.S. has deemed “critical for national defense.”
But now the Joe Biden presidency is backing a U.S. infrastructure bill which contains an electric vehicle incentive: a US$12,500 rebate to Americans on the purchase of a new electric vehicle — but only if the vehicle is produced in the U.S.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland were in Washington last week, in part to oppose this measure, saying it “could wreak havoc on Canada’s auto sector and violate the new NAFTA.”
According to CBC News:
“The Canadian government argues that the incentive threatens decades of co-operating between the two nations in the auto sector and could lead to job losses on both sides of the border. Mexico also opposes the plan.”
So Canada is supposed to supply the critical minerals to the U.S., but sacrifice some of its auto sector to this “Buy American” process. At stake are the Ford EV production plant in Oakville, Ontario and the Fiat Chrysler EV plant in Windsor. As we wait to see how this political paradox plays out, it’s useful to get a more detailed picture of the mining needed.
Massive mining means massive pollution and exploitation
Just how massive the mining will be for the energy transition has been suggested by recent figures released by Bloomberg NEF (BNEF). The figures were reported on November 12 by OilPrice.com.
BNEF looked at four sectors: solar panels, wind turbines, lithium batteries, and EV charging stations.
The key metals and materials needed for solar panels include steel, aluminum, polysilicon, copper and silver. “BNEF estimates that it takes 10,252 tons of aluminum, 3,380 tons of polysilicon and 18.5 tons of silver to manufacture solar panels with 1GW [gigawatt] capacity.”
Wind turbines need steel, copper, aluminum, nickel and other materials. To construct wind turbines and infrastructure with the power capacity of one gigawatt, BNEF found that 154,352 tons of steel, 2,866 tons of copper and 387 tons of aluminum would be needed.
For lithium-ion batteries, the key metals are copper, aluminum, lithium, nickel, cobalt, and manganese. BNEF found that it would take 1,731 tons of copper, 1,202 tons of aluminum, and 729 tons of lithium to manufacture 1GWh Li-ion batteries.
A single, fast EV charging station typically needs 25 kilograms of copper. BNEF anticipates that by 2027, 30.8 million charging stations will be in use.
But BNEF has not included all the critical minerals needed by these four sectors. The 2021 third edition of an environmental report called Hoodwinked in the Hothouse notes that wind turbines need a rare earth metal called neodymium which is “mined in highly polluting conditions,” while solar panels also need lithium and cobalt, which are often mined in “horribly exploitive conditions.”
“Hoodwinked in the Hothouse” reminded readers:
“When Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, was challenged over whether the need for batteries for his electric cars might have something to do with the 2019 coup in Bolivia (site of one of the largest lithium mines), he tweeted: ‘We will coup whoever we want. Deal with it.’”
The authors noted:
“Wind and solar power can allow future generations some of the conveniences we have come to take for granted, but for this to happen within a framework of justice, sustainability and environmental protection, the overdeveloped world must go on an energy diet.”
Whether that energy diet can be prompted by the terrible paradox we face is anyone’s guess.