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conflict minerals

Just Minerals: Safeguarding protections for community rights, sacred places, and public lands from the unfounded push for mining expansion

By staff - Earthworks, June 17, 2021

Mining has harmful climate, equity, and resource impacts that, without reform, may ultimately undermine the benefits of transitioning to renewable energy. Building a sustainable economy based on clean energy gives us an historic opportunity to confront the legacy of injustice to Indigenous communities and damage to the public lands held in trust for future generations.

This report outlines how current federal minerals policy conflicts with the Biden-Harris administration’s clean energy and environmental justice agendas, and how those policies must change to ensure minerals are sourced in a way that better protects marginalized communities and the environment. The infrastructure to support the transition to low-carbon energy requires a variety of minerals—cobalt and lithium, among others. Just Minerals encourages government officials to prioritize recycling, reusing and substituting minerals needed for renewable energy technology over new extraction.

Among the report’s key findings:

  • Updating the rules that govern mining on public lands must be an integral part of this administrations’ environmental justice agenda, until Congress acts to reform the antiquated 1872 Mining Law. Even without Congressional action, the Biden administration has a variety of policy tools available to reduce the pressure to source minerals from irresponsible mines.
  • There is significant untapped mineral recycling and reuse potential available using current technology. With the right policies in place, we can create a more circular economy that may approximately halve global demand for certain minerals, like cobalt, lithium, and nickel, key to the clean energy transition.
  • Major consumers, including automakers and electronics companies, have also directed their suppliers to source more responsibly. Ford, Microsoft, BMW, and Daimler-Benz, among others, have committed to the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA), which independently audits and certifies environmental and social performance at mines.

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Deep-Sea Mining for Metals: Treading Carefully on the Path Toward Renewables

By Katherine Wilkin - Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, June 8, 2021

As the push for renewable energy sources continues as a means to combat climate change, the demand for metals and minerals that make up critical components of clean energy technology will be on the rise. While some of these minerals can be obtained via deep-sea mining, the environmental impacts of such efforts are not well understood. In moving to a clean energy economy, governments and international non-governmental organizations need to research, understand, and mitigate the negative impacts to the environment and communities that can and will result from activities like deep-sea mining before allowing projects to go forward.

The United States Geological Survey has identified 11 metals and minerals as critical commodities in renewable energy technologies: arsenic, gallium, germanium, indium, tellurium, aluminum, cobalt, graphite, lithium, manganese, and rare earth elements. Silver, copper, selenium, silica, nickel, and cadmium are also used in solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries. Several of these critical metals and elements can be obtained via deep-sea mining from three different types of deposits: (i) cobalt-rich crust that contains manganese, iron, cobalt, copper, nickel and platinum; (ii) polymetallic nodules which are rich in manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt, molybdenum and rare earth elements; and (iii) sea-floor massive sulphides which contain copper, gold, zinc, lead, barium and silver.

Whether deep-sea mining is necessary to acquire enough minerals to fuel the renewable energy shift remains an unanswered question. In a May 2021 report on the need for minerals to power energy transition technologies, the International Energy Agency predicted that by 2040, total mineral demand for clean energy will be four times current demand. Electric vehicles and battery storage technology account for about half of this predicted growth in mineral demand. The Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney indicated in 2016 that this increased demand for materials can be satisfied without utilizing deep-sea mining even under a target of 100% renewable energy use by 2050. Further, Carbon Brief reported in 2018 that reserves of lithium and cobalt are likely to be sufficient to meet demand, but there are outstanding concerns of supply chain bottleneck causing delays. This is supported by the IEA report, which indicated that problems in supply of minerals is more likely to be a matter of quality rather than quantity. However, a 2018 study supported by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure found that the current supply of critical metals is not enough to transition to a fully-renewable energy system in the Netherlands. Additionally, a 2019 projection of demand for cobalt, lithium, and silver looking as far as 2050 found that “reserves” of these materials—a portion of total available resources that can be extracted economically—will not be sufficient to meet demand for cobalt, and demand for lithium can only be met in a “potential recycling scenario” with improved recycling rates over what is being conducted at present.

With the growing demand for metals and materials for use in renewable energy technologies, concerns arise about the environmental impacts and environmental justice implications of mining on land. For example, cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been the site of human rights violations, child labor, and severe environmental pollution. For that reason, deep-sea mining of these materials may present an option with fewer direct human impacts and environmental justice concerns.

Driving Destructive Mining: EU Civil Society Denounces EU Raw Materials Plans in European Green Deal

By various - Yes to Life No to Mining, June 2021

A global coalition of 180+ community platforms, human rights and environmental organisations, and academics from 36 nations is calling on the EU to abandon its plans to massively expand dirty mining as part of EU Green Deal and Green Recovery plans.

In a statement released in the middle of EU green week, the coalition explains why, if left unchanged, EU policies and plans will drastically increase destructive mining in Europe and in the Global South, which is bad news for the climate, ecosystems, and human rights around the world.

“The EU is embarking on a desperate plunder for raw materials. Instead of delivering a greener economy, the European Commission’s plans will lead to more extraction beyond ecological limits, more exploitation of communities and their land, and new toxic trade deals. Europe is consuming as if we had three planets available”, says Meadhbh Bolger, Resource Justice Campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe.

Coordinated by the Yes to Life, No to Mining Network’s European Working Group, the statement’s signatories are united in support of an urgent and rapid transition to renewable energy.

However, they argue that relying on expanding mining to meet the material needs of this transition will replicate the injustices, destruction and dangerous assumptions that have caused climate breakdown in the first place:

“The EU growth and Green Deal plans must consider a deep respect of the rights of affected communities in the Global South, that are opposing the destruction of their lands, defending water and even their lives. A strong collective voice is arising from affected communities around the Planet, denouncing hundreds of new mining projects for European consumption. Their urgent message needs to be heard in the North: Yes to Life No to Mining”, says Guadalupe Rodriguez, Latin American Contact Person for the global Yes to Life, No to Mining solidarity network.

“Research shows that a mining-intensive green transition will pose significant new threats to biodiversity that is critical to regulating our shared climate. It is absolutely clear we cannot mine our way out of the climate crisis. Moreover, there is no such thing as ‘green mining’. We need an EU Green Deal that addresses the root causes of climate change, including the role that mining and extractivism play in biodiversity loss ”, adds Yvonne Orengo of Andrew Lees Trust, which is supporting mining affected communities in Madagascar.

The statement sets out a number of actions the EU can take to change course towards climate and environmental justice, including recognising in law communities’ Right to Say No to unwanted extractive projects and respect for Indigenous Peoples’ right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent.

Read the text (PDF).

We can't mine our way out of climate crisis

By Hannibal Rhoades and Andy Whitmore - The Ecologist, May 25, 2021

A new and thorny environmental debate is breaking into mainstream conversations about climate breakdown.

We are going to need a vast supply of ‘transition minerals' like lithium and nickel - used in everything from wind turbines to solar panels to electric vehicles - if we are to papidly accelerate our switch to renewable energy.

Obtaining enough of these minerals while scaling up supply to meet rapidly growing demand represents a serious potential bottleneck in achieving global climate targets. How will we get these minerals and metals - and can we get them quickly enough?

Colonialism

This discussion has moved from activist and academic meeting rooms to the Washington DC, Beijing and Brussels. And mining corporations, ever-alert for a profit-making opportunity, have begun presenting themselves as our climate saviours.

Clean, green, sustainable, responsible mining, they say, will deliver the materials we need to meet our climate commitments. Policymakers have largely accepted the mining industry’s presentation of itself in these glowing terms.

Critical minerals task forces and industrial alliances are proliferating among wealthy nations. The aim is finding ways to secure supply. Governments around the world - both in the Global South and the North - are competing to attract foreign mining investment, often linked to the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For anyone who cares about climate justice, this is not good news.

Industrial-scale mining is synonymous with a long history of colonialism, oppression and ecological devastation. The industry has an appalling human rights record to this day where frontline communities and workers are concerned.

Green Energy, Green Mining, Green New Deal?

Mineral constraints for transition overstated by IEA

By Kingsmill Bond - Carbon Trackers, May 10, 2021

The IEA’s latest piece on minerals critical to the energy transition gives a rather pessimistic spin to what was some very positive data. Looked at from a wider perspective, the note provides another useful source of analytical support for the energy transition.

The IEA looked into the amount of minerals needed to fuel the energy transition, and pretty quickly worked out ‘there is no shortage of resources’. The world has plenty of lithium, nickel, rare earth metals and so on. This is what the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has been saying for a while, and fits with the work done by the Energy Transitions Commission on mineral availability.

The IEA notes for example that we have 170 times as much lithium reserves as annual demand and that our lithium reserves have increased by 42% over the last eight years as higher prices and the prospect of rising demand have drawn out new investment. Under the IEA’s 1.5 degrees scenario, we will need about twice the amount of critical minerals by 2040 (six times as much for the clean energy industry, but that is only part of global demand), and the IEA put forward a series of sensible suggestions (increase recycling, invest in new supply and so on) to ensure that we get it.

However, their take then turns gloomier as we are warned about how hard this is going to be. Impressive charts show that the average electric vehicle uses 210kg of critical minerals compared to only 35kg for an ICE car and that a MW of solar generation capacity needs 6.5 tonnes of critical minerals compared to a coal plant which needs only 3 tonnes. We are then encouraged to think about all the ESG issues and environmental issues associated with the surge in mineral usage and to worry about supplier concentration, water usage, pollution and depletion.

Stand back a moment however, and you can see immediately that the IEA are very selective in their presentation of the data. They look only at the stocks (the assets you need to build the generator or car) not the flows (the energy you need to run them). But the flows of energy are 2-3 orders of magnitude larger than the stocks, and this means that many of their conclusions are more useful for fossil fuel advocates than for policymakers.

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.

Reducing new mining for electric vehicle battery metals: responsible sourcing through demand reduction strategies and recycling

By Elsa Dominish, Nick Florin, and Rachael Wakefield-Rann - Earthworks, April 27, 2021

This research investigates the current status and future potential of strategies to reduce demand for new mining, particularly for lithium-ion battery metals for electric vehicles. This study is focused on four metals which are important to lithium-ion batteries: cobalt, lithium, nickel and copper.

In order to meet the goals of the Paris Climate agreement and prevent the worst effects of catastrophic climate change, it will be essential for economies to swiftly transition to renewable energy and transport systems. At present, the technologies required to produce, store and utilize renewable energy require a significant amount of materials that are found predominantly in environmentally sensitive and often economically marginalized regions of the world. As demand for these materials increase, the pressures on these regions are likely to be amplified. For renewable energy to be socially and ecologically sustainable, industry and government should develop and support responsible management strategies that reduce the adverse impacts along the material and technology supply chains.

There are a range of strategies to minimize the need for new mining for lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, including extending product life through improved design and refurbishment for reuse, and recovering metals through recycling at end of life. For example, we found that recycling has the potential to reduce primary demand compared to total demand in 2040, by approximately 25% for lithium, 35% for cobalt and nickel and 55% for copper, based on projected demand. This creates an opportunity to significantly reduce the demand for new mining. However, in the context of growing demand for electric vehicles, it will also be important that other demand reduction strategies with lower overall material and energy costs are pursued in tandem with recycling, including policy to dis-incentivize private car ownership and make forms of active and public transport more accessible. While the potential for these strategies to reduce demand is currently not well understood; this report provides insights into the relative merits, viability, and implications of these demand reduction strategies, and offers recommendations for key areas of policy action.

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Recharge Responsibly: The Environmental and Social Footprint of Mining Cobalt, Lithium, and Nickel for Electric Vehicle Batteries

By Benjamin Hitchcock Auciello, et. al. - Earthworks, March 31, 2021

It is critical that the clean energy economy not repeat the mistakes of the dirty fossil fuel economy that it is seeking to replace. The pivot from internal combustion engines towards electric vehicles provides an unprecedented opportunity to develop a shared commitment to responsible mineral sourcing. We can accelerate the renewable energy transition and drive improvements in the social and environmental performance of the mining industry by reducing overall demand for new minerals, increasing mineral recycling and reuse, and ensuring that mining only takes place if it meets high environmental, human rights and social standards.

This report is designed to inform downstream battery metal users of key environmental, social, and governance issues associated with the extraction and processing of the three battery metals of principal concern for the development of electric vehicles and low-carbon energy infrastructure—lithium, cobalt and nickel—and to offer guidance on responsible minerals sourcing practices. This report reflects and summarizes some of the key concerns of communities impacted by current and proposed mineral extraction in hotspots around the world: Argentina, Chile and the United States for lithium, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Russia for nickel, and the Democratic Republic of Congo for cobalt.

Read the text (PDF).

Ecosocialismo: Envisioning Latin America’s Green New Deal

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