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Solving the Climate Crisis with Nuclear Energy Won’t Work

By Robert Pollin - Dollars & Sense, March/April 2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is—as of this writing, in late March—an ongoing calamity. As of now, it is impossible to predict how it might end, and what all its costs will be. We do know, as of now, that many thousands of people are dead, and millions of lives are being wrecked.

In addition to these most brutal consequences, the war must force us to rethink many issues that—with no exaggeration—reach to the core of how we can envision future prospects for life on earth. I will consider only one such question now. That is: What role should nuclear energy play in advancing a workable global climate stabilization project?

In the initial phase of its invasion on February 24, the Russian military seized control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which is located about 60 miles north of Kyiv in Ukraine. In 1986, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union, Chernobyl was the site of the most severe nuclear power plant accident in history. An explosion blew the lid off one of the plant’s four operating nuclear reactors. This released radioactive materials into the atmosphere that spread throughout the region. Despite this disaster, the other three reactors at Chernobyl continued operating until 2000.

The other three reactors did cease operating in 2000. And the site still houses more than 20,000 spent fuel rods. These rods must be constantly cooled, with the cooling system operating on electricity. If the system’s electrical power source were to malfunction, the spent fuel rods could become exposed to the air and catch fire. This would release radioactive materials into the atmosphere. Once released, the radioactive materials could again spread throughout the region and beyond, as they did in 1986. This is a low-probability but by no means a zero-probability scenario.

On March 3, the Russian miliary also took control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, the largest in Europe. According to a March 4 report on NPR, “Russian forces repeatedly fired heavy weapons in the direction of the plant’s massive reactor buildings, which housed dangerous nuclear fuel.” All military actions at or near the plant create further danger of the plant’s operations becoming compromised. As with Chernobyl, this could then lead to radioactive materials being released into the atmosphere.

Nuclear disasters at both Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia are therefore active threats right now. In addition, the war is compromising the security systems that operate to protect both sites. The fact that both sites have become combat zones means that they are more vulnerable to attacks from non-state actors, including terrorist organizations of any variety. The aim of such organizations in breaching security at Chernobyl or Zaporizhzhya would almost certainly include gaining access to materials that would enable them to produce homemade nuclear weapons. At the least, they would be positioned to threaten the release of radioactive materials.

Plastic pollution treaty: agreement must include all workers in plastics life cycle

By staff - International Trade Union Confederation, March 3, 2022

The ITUC has welcomed the latest step to agree a global treaty to tackle the crisis of plastic pollution, but has demanded immediate action to ensure a just transition for working people.

Nearly 200 countries agreed on a resolution that establishes an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) with the ambition of completing a draft, global, legally-binding agreement by the end of 2024.

ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said:

“It’s good that the final resolution acknowledges the key role of informal workers, and workers’ cooperatives, in collecting, sorting and recycling plastics in many places.

“But, the final treaty must recognise the importance of all workers in the life cycle of plastics, from fossil fuel fracking to production to waste.

“It must include comprehensive ’just transition’ plans to deal with the future impacts of the treaty on these workers in a fair way. But quite frankly, the world can’t wait. We need just transition plans now in every company and every country for every working person affected.

“We will engage fully with the INC to make sure all working people in the plastics supply chain are heard and their interests taken into account.”

It is expected that the INC will present a legally binding treaty that will address:

  • the full lifecycle of plastics;
  • the design of products and materials;
  • the need for international collaboration to facilitate access to technology and scientific and technical cooperation.

The UN Environment Programme says that global plastic production has risen to around 400 million tonnes per year, with only an estimated 9% recycled.

The remainder is dumped in landfills or into the environment, including around 11 million metric tonnes put into the ocean each year. This figure is expected to double by 2030.

Refuse workers take strike action during COP26 climate talks

Climate Jobs: Building a Workforce for the Climate Emergency

By Suzanne Jeffery, editor, et. al - Campaign Against Climate Change, November 2021

This report was written by the Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group (CACCTU). It builds on and develops the earlier work produced by CACCTU, One Million Climate Jobs (2014). The editorial group and contributors to this report are trade unionists, environmental activists and campaigners and academics who have collaborated to update and expand the previous work. Most importantly, this updated report is a response to the urgency of the climate crisis and the type and scale of the transition needed to match it.

This report shows how we can cut UK emissions of greenhouse gases to help prevent catastrophic climate change. We explain how this transformation could create millions of climate jobs in the coming years and that the public sector must take a leading role. Climate jobs are those which directly contribute to reducing emissions. This investment will give us better public transport, warmer homes, clean air in our cities and community renewal in parts of the country which have long been neglected. Most importantly, it will give us a chance for the future, avoiding the existential threat of climate breakdown.

Read the text (Link).

Hoodwinked in the Hothouse: Examining False Corporate Schemes advanced through the Paris Agreement

Workers at Curbside Recycling Win Raise, Paid Time Off

By Elise Brehob - Industrial Worker, September 22, 2021

For workers at the Curbside Recycling Program in Berkeley, California, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for better working conditions. The truck drivers, who have been required to work every day while many California residents sheltered at home, demanded and won both a wage increase and more paid time off. The Curbside Recycling Union is organized with the Industrial Workers of the World.

The Curbside Recycling Program is operated by the Ecology Center, a nonprofit organization, under contract with the City of Berkeley. The program’s recycling truck drivers began organizing in 1988 and won their first union contract the following year. More than 30 years later, the drivers remain unionized, winning greater wages and benefits, as well as maintaining control over their routes and accident review committees.

“The purpose of the accident review committee is to give the workers the ability to discuss and vote on accident responsibility,” explains Joe, a driver at the Curbside Recycling Program and member of the union. “For instance, if a recycling truck is sideswiped by an impatient motorist, the committee has the ability to find the driver of the truck blameless.”

Joe also recalls a half-day strike that the Curbside Recycling Union staged a few years ago, which involved every driver walking off the job.

 “There was one key demand,” says Joe. “That demand was that the workers have a say in route distribution and route assignments, which the company agreed to. … That was a key moment for the union to demonstrate union power.”

Our Existence is Our Resistance: Mining and Resistance on the Island of Ireland

By Lydia Sullivan - Yes to Life, No to Mining, September 2021

This report from Yes to Life, No to Mining Network (YLNM) explores how and why many nations – and the mining industry – are re-framing mining as a solution to climate change in order to facilitate domestic extraction of so-called ‘strategic’, ‘critical’ and ‘transition’ minerals required for renewable energy, military and digital technologies. 

This analysis of geological and permitting data shows that a staggering 27% of the Republic of Ireland and 25% of Northern Ireland are now under concession for mining.

YLNM’s new research examines state and corporate claims that mining in Europe represents a gold standard of regulation and corporate practice that justifies creating new mining sacrifice zones in the name of climate action.

Without exception, the authors – in all nations – report a vast gap between this rhetoric and the realities of mining at Europe’s new extractive frontiers, highlighting systemic rights violations and ecological harm.

Read the text (PDF).

A Green Shift? Mining and Resistance in Fennoscandia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Sápmi

Mirko Nikolic, Editor, et. al. - Yes to Life, No to Mining, September 2021

This report from Yes to Life, No to Mining Network (YLNM) explores how and why many nations – and the mining industry – are re-framing mining as a solution to climate change in order to facilitate domestic extraction of so-called ‘strategic’, ‘critical’ and ‘transition’ minerals required for renewable energy, military and digital technologies. 

Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish authorities have granted concessions for tens of thousands of hectares of land, with mining pressure increasing particularly dramatically in Sápmi – the home territory of the Indigenous Sámi Peoples. 

YLNM’s new research examines state and corporate claims that mining in Europe represents a gold standard of regulation and corporate practice that justifies creating new mining sacrifice zones in the name of climate action.

Without exception, the authors – in all nations – report a vast gap between this rhetoric and the realities of mining at Europe’s new extractive frontiers, highlighting systemic rights violations and ecological harm.

Read the text (PDF).

Where We Mine: Resource Politics in Latin America

Thea Riofrancos interviewed by Annabelle Dawson - Green European Journal, August 12, 2021

As the drive to expand renewable energy capacity speeds up, there is a rush for lithium and other materials around the world. What will the expansion of rare earth mining in Latin America mean for the indigenous communities and workers who have historically borne the harms of extractivism? Thea Riofrancos, author of Resource Radicals (Duke University Press, 2020), explains how the energy transition in the Global North risks being anything but just without structural changes to supply chains and the governance of extractive industries.

Annabelle Dawson: Your work explores the politics of resource extraction in Latin America, from oil in Ecuador to lithium in Chile. How do you define resource politics or extractivism?

Thea Riofrancos: Resource politics refers to any social or political activity – whether conflict, collaboration, political economy or social mobilisation – that’s attributed to the extraction of resources, and in some cases to stop resource extraction. Scholarship tends to see resource politics as primarily related to elites like state officials and corporate actors. This is pivotal, for example, to the concept of the resource curse, which holds that dependency on resource rents leads to authoritarianism. However, this focus overlooks a range of resource politics such as social movements that oppose extractive projects or demand better regulation and indigenous rights.

Extractivism is a little thornier to define. My research has explored how in Latin America social movements, activists and even some bureaucrats in the case of Ecuador began to use this term to diagnose the problems that they associated with resource extraction. This happened in the context of the 2000 to 2014 commodity boom – a period of intense investment in resource sectors driven by the industrialisation of emerging economies like China – and the Left’s return to power across Latin America during the “Pink Tide”. Activists, left-wing intellectuals and some government officials began to see extractivism as an interlocking system of social and environmental harm, political repression, and corporate and foreign capital domination. So, the concept originates from political activity rather than scholarship [read more about extractivism in Latin America].

We tend to associate resource extraction with notoriously dirty commodities like coal, oil, and certain metals. How are green technologies implicated in all of this?

The transition to renewable energies is often thought of as switching one energy source for another: fossil fuels for renewables. That’s part of it, but this transition fits into a much bigger energy and socio-economic system. You can’t just swap energy sources without rebuilding the infrastructures and technologies required to harness, generate, and transmit that energy. All this has a large material footprint and requires materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and rare earth metals [read more about the central role and impact of these rare metals]. More traditional extractive sectors like copper are also very important for decarbonisation.

One very bad outcome would be if the harms related to fossil fuel capitalism were reproduced in new renewable energy systems, subjecting particular communities to the harms of resource extraction in the name of fighting climate change. We need a new energy system quickly – especially in the Global North given the historic emissions of the US and Europe. But in this rush, there’s a real risk of reproducing inequalities and environmental damage. This is especially so with some mining sectors where a boom in the raw materials for green technologies like wind turbines, electric vehicles and solar panels is predicted.

Mining and Green New Deals

By Sebastian Ordoñez Muñoz - The Ecologist, August 4, 2021

Mining that destroys communities and the ecosystem can have no part in any Green New Deal.

The recent mainstreaming of the Green New Deal framework has intensified scrutiny on oil majors.

However, the same cannot be said of global extractivist power - especially mining companies, who see the climate crisis as an opportunity to reinvent themselves and guarantee their bottom line. 

Supported by the World Bank, the mining industry has cynically positioned itself as key actors in the energy transition, claiming they are needed to provide the minerals and metals to meet growing renewable energy demand.

This series of articles has been published in partnership with Dalia Gebrial and Harpreet Kaur Paul and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in London. It first appeared in a collection titled Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal.

Batteries

Yet, many of these same companies are heavily invested in fossil fuel extractors, and are among the world’s highest corporate emitters.

The mining industry, along with other extractive industries, has been at the heart of a colonial model which continues to bring profits to multinational corporations and the wealthy few, while dispossessing countless communities of their lands, water and livelihoods and exploiting workers at the expense of their health and well-being.

Miners are also amongst the most mistreated workers in the world.

In July 2019, at least 43 artisanal miners died in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), due to a mine collapse at an industrial copper and cobalt mine owned by Anglo-Swiss multinational Glencore - cobalt is a vital part of electric car batteries.

Protest

UNICEF estimates that 40,000 children work in mining across the south of the DRC. Meanwhile, Glencore sees itself as part of the energy transition powering the electric vehicle revolution.

During the pandemic, multiple governments declared mining an essential activity, or responded to industry pressure to do so after a brief shutdown.

Mining operations became vectors of the disease - for workers and rural communities.

As companies profiteered from the pandemic, threats to land defenders exercising legitimate protest increased, and the regulatory groundwork was laid to reposition and bolster extractivist industries.

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