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Calls for sustainable and responsible mining for the clean energy transition

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 6, 2021

An important Special Report by the International Energy Association was released in May: The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions. Reflecting a mainstream view of the importance of the raw materials for clean technologies such as electric vehicles and energy storage, the IEA provides “ a wealth of detail on mineral demand prospects under different technology and policy assumptions” , and discusses the various countries which offer supply – including Canada. The main discussion is of policies regarding supply chains, especially concerning responsible and sustainable mining, concluding with six key recommendations, including co-ordination of the many international frameworks and initiatives in the area. The report briefly recognizes the Mining Association of Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) protocols as internationally significant, and as one of the first to require on-site verification of its standards. The Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) initiative was established in 2004, requiring member companies to “demonstrate leadership by reporting and independently verifying their performance in key environmental and social areas such as aboriginal and community engagement, biodiversity conservation, climate change, tailings management.”

On May 5, the Mining Association of Canada updated one of its TSM protocols with the release a new Climate Change Protocol, a major update to its 2013 Energy Use and GHG Emissions Management Protocol. It is designed “to minimize the mining sector’s carbon footprint, while enhancing climate change disclosure and strengthening the sector’s ability to adapt to climate change.” The Protocol is accompanied by a new Guide on Climate Change Adaptation for the Mining Sector, intended for mine owners in Canada, but with global application. The Guide includes case studies of such mines as the Glencore Nickel mine in Sudbury, the notorious Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories, and the Suncor Millennium tailings pond remediation at its oil sands mine in Alberta. The membership of MAC is a who’s who of Canadian mining and oil sands companies / – including well-known companies such as ArcelorMittal, Barrick Gold, Glencore, Kinross, Rio Tinto, Suncor, and Syncrude. Other documentation, including other Frameworks and progress reports, are compiled at a dedicated Climate Change Initiatives and Innovations in the Mining Industry website.

The demand for lithium, cobalt, nickel, and the other rare earth minerals needed for technological innovation has been embraced, not only by the mining industry, but in policy discussions – recently, by Clean Energy Canada in its March 2021 report, The Next Frontier. The federal ministry of Natural Resources Canada is also supportive, maintaining a Green Mining Innovation Initiative through CanmetMINING , and the government joined the U.S.-led Energy Resource Governance Initiative (ERGI) in 2019 to promote “secure and resilient supply chains for critical energy minerals.”

Alternative points of view have been pointing out the dangers inherent in the new “gold rush” mentality, since at least 2016 when Amnesty International released its 2016 expose of the use of child labour in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most recently, in February 2021, Amnesty released Powering Change: Principles for Businesses and Governments in the Battery Value Chain, which sets out specific principles that governments and businesses should follow to avoid human rights abuses and environmental harm. Other examples: MiningWatch Canada has posted their April 2021 webinar Green Energy, Green Mining, Green New Deal?, which states: “The mining sector is working hard to take advantage of the climate crisis, painting mining as “green” because it supplies materials needed to support the “green” energy transition. But unless demand for both energy and materials are curtailed, environmental destruction and social conflicts will also continue to grow.” MiningWatch Canada published Turning Down the Heat: Can We Mine Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis? in 2020, reporting on a 2019 international conference which focused on the experience of frontline communities. Internationally, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre maintains a Transition Minerals tracker, with ongoing data and reports concerning human and labour rights in the mining of “transition minerals”, and also compiles links to recent reports and articles. Two recent reports in 2021: Recharge Responsibly: The Environmental and Social Footprint of Mining Cobalt, Lithium, and Nickel for Electric Vehicle Batteries (March 2021, Earthworks) and A Material Transition: Exploring supply and demand solutions for renewable energy minerals from the U.K. organization War on Want.

Freight Automation: Dangers, Threats, and Opportunities for Health and Equity

By staff - RAMP, HIP, and Moving Forward Network, April 20, 2021

The freight transportation system in the United States is a fundamental part of our economy, infrastructure and environment, but many freight system frontline workers labor in arduous conditions yet receive low wages and limited benefits.

Freight Automation: Dangers, Threats, and Opportunities for Health and Equity explores how automation in the freight transportation system affects the health of workers, communities, and the environment—and also how these effects will be inequitably felt by people with low incomes and communities of color. Created PHI’s Regional Asthma Management and Prevention, Moving Forward Network, Human Impact Partners and community partners, the report also provides recommendations for policies and programs that promote health and equity for frontline workers and fence-line communities.

Read the text (PDF).

Suez opened: Questions around monster ships remain

By Patrick Mazza - The Raven, March 29, 2021

Helped by a high tide, MV Ever Given was freed from the Suez Canal shallows yesterday at 3pm local time after two heavy-pull tugs arrived and thousands of tons of material were dredged away. 

After a week in which the massive container ship was lodged between two banks and under maximum stress - with maritime experts worrying it could break at the sagging center - the stern was freed early Sunday and the bow later in the day. Finally coming on the scene Sunday were tugs capable of anchoring to the bottom and exerting pulling force four times or more greater than most of the tugs on site. By this morning the ship had arrived at Great Bitter Lake mid-canal where the hull could be examined for cracks. Bow and stern compartments had been taking on water.

Now the questions will come. Why did the Suez Canal Authority not have rescue tugs on station for incidents like this? How prepared were authorities for the emergence of the new mega-ships, capable of carrying 20,000 and more containers?

In a broader sense, the Suez crisis shines a light on what maritime historian Sal Mercagliano, a merchant marine veteran, calls “a hidden industry” and its impacts on waterways and ports as well as port communities and workers. A powerful shipping industry has been dictating terms, based on its own economic calculations, and shunting costs off to the public. Taxpayers have been paying for expensive dredging and port upgrades. Communities have been subject to increased pollution and accidents from drayage trucks hauling containers, with drivers working under brutal conditions. And the global economy just suffered $10 billion in blocked trade each day for the last seven. It’s a large topic beyond the scope of a single post, so I will try to hit the high points. 

Lithium, Batteries and Climate Change: The transition to green energy does not have to be powered by destructive and poisonous mineral extraction

By Jonathan Neale - Climate and Capitalism, February 11, 2021

I have spent the last year working on a book called Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs. Most of it is about both the politics and the engineering of any possible transition that can avert catastrophic climate breakdown. One thing I had to think about long and hard was lithium and car batteries.

I often hear people say that we can’t cover the world with electric vehicles, because there simply is not enough lithium for batteries. In any case, they add, lithium production is toxic, and the only supplies are in the Global South. Moreover, so the story goes, there are not enough rare earth metals for wind turbines and all the other hardware we will need for renewable energy.

People often smile after they say those things, which is hard for me to understand, because it means eight billion people will go to hell.

So I went and found out about lithium batteries and the uses of rare earth. What I found out is that the transition will be possible, but neither the politics nor the engineering is simple. This article explains why. I start by describing the situation simply, and then add in some of the complexity.

Lithium is a metal used in almost all electric vehicle batteries today. About half of global production of lithium currently goes to electric vehicles. And in future we will need to increase the production of electric vehicles from hundreds or thousands to hundreds of millions. That will require vast amounts of lithium.

There are three ways to mine lithium. It can be extracted from rock. It can be extracted from the brine that is left over when sea water passes through a desalination plant. Or it can be extracted from those brine deposits which are particularly rich in lithium. These brine deposits are the common way of mining lithium currently, because it is by far the cheapest. Most of the known deposits of lithium rich brine are in the arid highlands where Bolivia, Chile and Argentina come together.

Lithium mining is well established in Chile and Argentina. In both countries the local indigenous people have organized against the mining, but so far been unable to stop it. The mining is toxic, because large amounts of acid are used in the processing. But the mining also uses large amounts of water in places that already has little enough moisture. The result is that ancestral homelands become unlivable.

Bolivia may have even richer deposits of lithium than Argentina and Chile, but mining has not begun there. The Bolivian government had been led by the indigenous socialist Evo Morales from 2006 to 2019. Morales had been propelled to power by a mass movement committed to taking back control of Bolivia’s water, gas and oil resources from multinational corporations. Morales was unable to nationalize the corporations, but he did insist on the government getting a much larger share of the oil and gas revenue.[1]

His government planned to go even further with lithium. Morales wanted to mine the lithium in Bolivia, but he wanted to build factories alongside the mines to make batteries. In a world increasingly hungry for batteries, that could have turned Bolivia into an industrial nation, not just a place to exploit resources.

The Morales government, however, was unable to raise the necessary investment funds. Global capital, Tesla, the big banks and the World Bank had no intention of supporting such a project. And if they had, they would not have done so in conjunction with a socialist like Morales. Then, in 2019, a coup led by Bolivian capitalists, and supported by the United States, removed Morales. Widespread popular unrest forced a new election in October. Morales’ party, the Movement for Socialism won, though Morales himself was out of the running. It is unclear what will happen to the lithium.

That’s one level of complexity. The local indigenous people did not want the lithium mined. The socialist government did not want extractavism, but they did want industrial development.

Those are not the only choices.

For one thing, there are other, more expensive ways of mining lithium. It can be mined from hard rock in China or the United States. More important, batteries do not have to be made out of lithium. Cars had used batteries for almost a century before Sony developed a commercial lithium-ion battery in 1991. Engineers in many universities are experimenting with a range of other materials for building batteries. But even without looking to the future, it would be possible to build batteries in the ways they used to be built. Indeed, in January 2020, the US Geological Service listed the metals that could be substituted for lithium in battery anodes as calcium, magnesium, mercury and zinc.[2]

The reason all manufacturers currently use lithium is that it provides a lighter battery that lasts longer. That gives the car greater range without recharging, and it make possible a much lighter car. In other words, lithium batteries are cheaper.

IndustriALL sets out union goals for decent work in the battery supply chain, organizing in Green Tech

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, November 20, 2020

IndustriALL Global Union represents workers along the entire battery supply chain, (except in China) through its international affiliates in mining, chemicals, energy, electronics, and the automotive sector. Canada’s Unifor is an affiliate. “Due diligence across the battery supply chain” (November 2020) describes that expanding and complex supply chain, from mining to processing to end-use products for batteries, and outlines the union’s aim to research and map it. IndustriALL’s aim is to “create a social dialogue scheme or platform with key stakeholders to achieve decent work for all throughout the supply chain. IndustriALL is the only global union who can coordinate unions around the world and contribute to the policy to achieve decent work around the battery supply chain. The international trade union movement becomes more important than ever. ” A separate post, “Developing a global trade union battery supply chain strategy” ( November 20) outlines further specifics about the union’s strategy and announces: “IndustriALL has applied for funding for a project starting in January 2021 on the battery supply chain across the industrial sectors. In a pilot project IndustriALL intends to collaborate with companies, NGOs and other associations to find out how such an approach can help to genuinely improve the situation workers along the entire battery supply chain.”

GreenTEch Manifesto for Mechanical Engineering

IndustriALL Global Union convened an online seminar on green technology in the mechanical engineering sector in early November 2020 – summarized here. The seminar was the occasion to launch a GreenTech Manifesto, which defines “Green technology” (GreenTech ) as “ any technology that promotes one or more of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN summit in 2015, specifically clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, green industry, innovation and infrastructure, responsible consumption and production and climate action.”

At a previous IndustriALL workshop on Mechanical Engineering and GreenTech in December 2018, the President of Austrian trade union PRO-GE and co-chair of the sector, said: “As mechanical engineers and trade unionists, technology is the most important contribution we can make to mitigating climate change. We need hydro, we need wind, we need solar, we need biomass. And we need strong unions to ensure that energy transition is just.”

The new Greentech Manifesto states: “IndustriALL Global Union and its affiliates need to be alert and present so that green jobs become good jobs with appropriate working and living conditions. To this end the participants at this IndustriALL Global Union GreenTech virtual workshop resolve to: § facilitate exchange between affected affiliates in the sector over new trends, especially focusing on GreenTech, digitization and related developments § organize training for trade union organizers and works councils to develop new methods, strategies and services to approach and recruit new employees at green workplaces § involve especially young workers and women in our work § intensify our efforts to increase trade union power in the affected sectors through organizing and recruiting.”

Resilient Societies or Fossil Fuel Bailouts?

By staff - Oil Change International - April 22, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis poses a threat to people’s health, their jobs and their lives, and like all crises, exacerbates already existing inequalities. Trillions in public finance will be needed to get through the current pandemic. This briefing outlines why continuing to rely on fossil fuels, in particular oil and gas, is not compatible with long-term recovery. It does not make sense to use the COVID-19 stimulus packages to try to revive a sunsetting industry which will not deliver on economic recovery, only to shut it down a few years later to meet climate goals.

Governments now face a choice: fund a just transition away from fossil fuels that protects workers, communities, and the climate — or continue funding business-as-usual toward climate disaster. Governments should invest in a green recovery that protects and creates long lasting jobs, resilient economies and accelerates climate action. This briefing details why this is the most effective route for recovery and lays out the dos and don’ts for governments in their response to the current crisis.

Key Recommendations (DO’s):

  • Ensure national and international equity and a just transition is at the heart of any government response to the current crisis.
  • Protect workers and communities affected by the crisis, including those in the oil and gas sector, and create long-lasting green jobs by investing in resilient infrastructure and emerging low carbon industries that will continue to create jobs for decades.
  • Ensure Green New Deal frameworks provide the basis for stimulus packages to help rewrite the social contract in a people-centered response to the current crisis. 
  • End fossil fuel subsidies and finance and ensure any carbon price reflects climate and equity imperatives in order to ensure renewables remain competitive and incentivize efficient energy use in light of low oil prices while supporting a just transition.
  • Introduce oil and gas production caps as a first step to limiting emissions. The world is running out of storage capacity and production limits are needed to ensure a managed decline of the industry.
  • Make decision-making processes and response measures transparent in order to allow public scrutiny.
  • Bring the oil and gas industry into public ownership in the right circumstances, as it may be the most straightforward path to ensure a just transition for workers and communities and a managed phase-out.
  • Link any support provided to the industry to a requirement to align with climate goals and plan for a managed decline.
  • Ensure the polluter pays principle is upheld. Broadly speaking, over the past few decades, the financial rewards of the industry have been privatized, while the risks have been socialized.

Key Pitfalls to Avoid (DON’Ts):

  • DON’T bail out oil and gas companies or increase fossil fuel subsidies.
  • DON’T bail out other polluting industries, such as the aviation and shipping industries.
  • DON’T continue the construction or operation of fossil fuel infrastructure at the expense of the health of workers and communities.
  • DON’T roll back existing policies or regulations, or extend licensing agreements.
  • DON’T delay responses to the climate crisis amid the flurry of immediate priorities. If anything, the current pandemic has shown that a crisis demands a timely response to prevent it from escalating further.

While the fossil fuel sector may struggle to return to business as usual, without policies aimed at emerging from the crisis with a cleaner energy system, surviving companies may be in a position to capitalize on rising oil prices as the cycle turns. There are currently no safeguards against a future price spike and subsequent return to the volatile boom-bust cycle. This briefing advises governments to adopt recovery measures that will ensure a just transition off oil and gas, accelerate climate goals and build resilient societies, and center people instead of corporate executives and shareholders — all while tackling today’s parallel health, economic, and climate crises at once.

Read the report (PDF).

Taking the High Road: Strategies for a Fair EV Future

By staff - UAW Research Department, January 2020

The American automotive industry is constantly evolving and, throughout the union’s history, the United Auto Workers (UAW) has fought to ensure industry changes result in quality jobs that benefit workers and the economy.

The auto industry is facing a new shift in technology with the proliferation of electric vehicles (EVs). This shift is an opportunity to re-invest in U.S. manufacturing. But this opportunity will be lost if EVs or their components are imported or made by low-road suppliers who underpay workers. In order to preserve American jobs and work standards, what is needed is a proactive industrial policy that creates high-quality manufacturing jobs making EVs and their components.

Read the text (PDF).

Steel Arising

By Julian M Allwood, Cyrille F Dunant, Richard C Lupton, and André C H Serrenho - University of Cambridge, April 2019

The global steel industry is transforming from using iron ore to recycling scrap. Global arisings of steel scrap are likely to treble in the next thirty years and we will never need more blast furnaces than we have today. The extent and speed of this global transformation depends on two competing forces: on the one hand, today’s recycling technology cannot currently produce the highest qualities of high-volume steel econonically; on the other, recycling has the critical advantage that it reduces the greenhouse gas emissions released in producing steel to around a third of those from primary production. As the steel industry turns from ore to scrap and action on climate change accelerates, what opportunities does this create for steel in the UK?

UK consumers currently demand around 15 million tonnes per year of steel in final goods. Although the UK’s steel production has fallen to well below this figure, it manufactures goods containing around the same annual total. However, the UK largely exports its steel products and manufactured steel goods at low value, while importing most high-value final goods containing steel. Only one sixth of UK final consumption of steel goods is currently made with steel produced in the UK, and that is mainly lower value components for construction.

Despite this weak current position, the UK has four comparative advantages by which it could profit in the ongoing global transformation of steel production.

Read the report (Link).

A Vision for a Sustainable Battery Value Chain in 2030: Unlocking the Full Potential to Power Sustainable Development and Climate Change Mitigation

By staff - World Economic Forum, 2019

The need for urgent and more intensive actions against climate change is broadly recognized. In support of this agenda, this report presents a simple yet profound vision: a circular, responsible and just battery value chain is one of the major near- term drivers to realize the 2°C Paris Agreement goal in the transport and power sectors, setting course towards achieving the 1.5°C goal if complemented with other technologies and collaborative efforts.

With the right conditions in place, batteries are a systemic enabler of a major shift to bring transportation and power to greenhouse gas neutrality by coupling both sectors for the first time in history and transforming renewable energy from an alternative source to a reliable base. According to this report, batteries could enable 30% of the required reductions in carbon emissions in the transport and power sectors, provide access to electricity to 600 million people who currently have no access, and create 10 million safe and sustainable jobs around the world.

This report provides a quantified foundation for a vision about how batteries can contribute to sustainable development and climate change mitigation over the coming decade. The analysis underscores that this opportunity can only be achieved sustainably through a systemic approach across social, environmental and economic dimensions. It outlines key conditions and presents recommendations to realize this potential.

Read the report (Link).

Human Rights in Wind Turbine Supply Chains

By staff - ActionAid, January 19, 2018

This briefing paper sheds light on the risks that are brought about by the projected increase in demand for minerals, such as iron ore and chromium, which are needed for the production of new wind turbines. An overview is provided of how the mining of these minerals affects people and the environment in international supply chains.

The paper also describes what is expected of companies supplying the Netherlands with wind turbines in terms of their supply chain responsibility and respecting human rights. The paper then reviews efforts by these companies to undertake due diligence to identify, prevent and mitigate risks of adverse impacts in their metals and minerals supply chain.

Commissioned by ActionAid Netherlands and written by SOMO, the paper is primarily intended to inform the Dutch government and companies in the wind energy sector about the social and environmental risks in renewable energy supply chains. It’s aim is to influence and improve Dutch policy to ensure fair and sustainable mineral supply chains globally and to broaden the scope of the energy transition agenda.

Read the report (PDF).


November 2019 Update

This report is a follow-up to the 2018 research ‘Human Rights in Wind Turbine Supply Chains‘. This report assess the extent to which the seven wind turbine manufacturers that were examined in the initial report have acted on previous recommendations and improved their policies related to risk-based due diligence in their wind turbine supply chains. The report takes the different steps of due diligence expected by the UNGPs and the OECD Guidelines as its starting point and normative benchmark.

The research analyses the companies’ general due diligence processes as well as at how the companies approach the specific risks associated with the extraction and processing of minerals that play an important role in the production of wind turbines, such as iron, aluminium and copper. The report also provides recommendations for governments and companies.

Read the report (PDF).

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