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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.

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.

In Broad Daylight: Uyghur Forced Labour and Global Solar Supply Chains

By Laura T Murphy and Nyrola Elima - Sheffield Hallam University, May 2021

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has placed millions of indigenous Uyghur and Kazakh citizens from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR or Uyghur Region) into what the government calls “surplus labour” (富余劳动力) and “labour transfer” (劳动力转移)programmes. An official PRC government report published in November 2020 documents the “placement” of 2.6 million minoritised citizens in jobs in farms and factories within the Uyghur Region and across the country through these state-sponsored “surplus labour” and “labour transfer” initiatives. The government claims that these programmes are in accordance with PRC law and that workers are engaged voluntarily, in a concerted government-supported effort to alleviate poverty. However, significant evidence – largely drawn from government and corporate sources – reveals that labour transfers are deployed in the Uyghur Region within an environment of unprecedented coercion, undergirded by the constant threat of re-education and internment. Many indigenous workers are unable to refuse or walk away from these jobs, and thus the programmes are tantamount to forcible transfer of populations and enslavement.

It is critical that we examine the particular goods that are being produced as a result of this forced labour regime. This paper focuses on just one of those industries – the solar energy industry – and reveals the ways forced labour in the Uyghur Region can pervade an entire supply chain and reach deep into international markets. We concluded that the solar industry is particularly vulnerable to forced labour in the Uyghur Region because:

  • 95% of solar modules rely on one primary material – solar-grade polysilicon.
  • Polysilicon manufacturers in the Uyghur Region account for approximately 45% of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon supply.
  • All polysilicon manufacturers in the Uyghur Region have reported their participation in labour transfer programmes and/or are supplied by raw materials companies that have.
  • In 2020, China produced an additional 30% of the world’s polysilicon on top of that produced in the Uyghur Region, a significant proportion of which may be affected by forced labour in the Uyghur Region as well.

In the course of this research, we identified:

  • 11 companies engaged in labour transfers
  • 4 additional companies located within industrial parks that have accepted labour transfers
  • 90 Chinese and international companies whose supply chains are affected

This report seeks to increase the knowledge base upon which the solar industry determines its exposures to forced labour in the Uyghur Region. We investigated the entire solar module supply chain from quartz to panel to better understand the extent to which forced labour in the Uyghur region affects international value chains. The examples of engagement in these programs are meant to provide stakeholders with the evidence base upon which to judge risk of exposure to forced labour in the solar supply chain.

Read the Report (PDF).

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.

Read the text (Link).

The Impacts of Zero Emission Buses on the Transportation Workforce

By staff - Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, April 21, 2021

TTD and our affiliated unions recognize the serious impacts from climate change and the severe consequences we face if we fail to respond with responsible measures that reduce our carbon footprint. Like automation, however, discussions about reducing our carbon footprint often focus on the potential benefits from new technologies, without looking at the entire picture and taking intentional steps to ensure that the impacted industries’ workers and the communities they live in benefit from technological change.

Advocates of automation and mobility-on-demand services, for example, often tout the exciting new job opportunities created by the technologies while turning a blind eye to the impacts those technologies have on the incumbent workforce, including job loss and life-long wage suppression. TTD’s views and concerns about the impacts of those technologies are detailed in our past policy statement, Principles for the Transit Workforce in Automated Vehicle Legislation and Regulations; comments on the Trump administration’s ill-advised AV 3.0 and AV 4.0 policies, as well as its so-called Automated Vehicles Comprehensive Plan; our report on the disastrous anti-worker policies and efforts to undermine public transportation by ride-hailing companies; and testimony by former and current TTD presidents Larry Willis and Greg Regan before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Federal and local policies have long ensured that expanding public transportation access plays a key role in greenhouse gas reduction strategy. CO2 emissions per passenger mile are significantly lower on the existing fleet of diesel- and natural gas-powered bus transit vehicles than single occupancy vehicle trips. However, as the entire transportation industry seeks ways to continue reducing its carbon footprint, the move to zero-emission vehicles will continue to become a focus of federal, state, and local policies.

While the adoption of zero emission vehicles stands to make the transit sector an even stronger tool for reducing carbon emissions, years of underinvestment in workforce training combined with unfocused and sometimes non-existent policies on workforce support and training place tremendous strain on the incumbent workforce who may soon be asked to maintain complex electric infrastructure and vehicles. By way of example, at one major transit agency it was estimated that only 15% of bus mechanics have been trained to use a voltmeter, a basic diagnostic tool for electric engines. Without investment in worker training programs as a prerequisite for government support, transit agencies are likely to contract out this work leading to a large number of our existing mechanics seeing their jobs outsourced to lower-paying, lower-quality employers.

Furthermore, electric engines require fewer mechanics to maintain than their diesel and natural gas counterparts, which currently make up more than 99 percent of the domestic U.S. bus fleet. Policies that encourage or require a rapid transition to an all-electric fleet without an accompanying increase in transit service (which will serve to further reduce greenhouse gases) paired with strong labor protections will put tens of thousands of workers on the unemployment rolls.

For over 100 years, transportation workers, their unions, and their employers have worked together in the United States, bound by labor protections, to adopt and implement the extraordinary technological changes that have been the hallmark of this sector. Good, middle-class, union jobs must continue to be the focus for policymakers in the context of environmental technology, just as it has been for other innovations.

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

A Material Transition: Exploring supply and demand solutions for renewable energy minerals

By Andy Whitmore - War on Want, March 2021

There is an urgent need to deal with the potential widespread destruction and human rights abuses that could be unleashed by the extraction of transition minerals: the materials needed at high volumes for the production of renewable energy technologies. Although it is crucial to tackle the climate crisis, and rapidly transition away from fossil fuels, this transition cannot be achieved by expanding our reliance on other materials. The voices arguing for ‘digging our way out of the climate crisis’, particularly those that make up the global mining industry, are powerful but self-serving and must be rejected. We need carefully planned, lowcarbon and non-resource-intensive solutions for people and planet.

Academics, communities and organisations have labelled this new mining frontier, ‘green extractivism’: the idea that human rights and ecosystems can be sacrificed to mining in the name of “solving” climate change, while at the same time mining companies profit from an unjust, arbitrary and volatile transition. There are multiple environmental, social, governance and human rights concerns associated with this expansion, and threats to communities on the frontlines of conflicts arising from mining for transition minerals are set to increase in the future. However, these threats are happening now. From the deserts of Argentina to the forests of West Papua, impacted communities are resisting the rise of ‘green extractivism’ everywhere it is occurring. They embody the many ways we need to transform our energy-intense societies to ones based on democratic and fair access to the essential elements for a dignified life. We must act in solidarity with impacted communities across the globe.

This report includes in-depth studies written by frontline organisations in Indonesia and Philippines directly resisting nickel mining in both countries respectively. These exclusive case studies highlight the threats, potential impacts and worrying trends associated with nickel mining and illustrate, in detail, the landscape for mining expansion in the region.

Read the text (PDF).

Canada’s net zero future should include policies to support technology “wild cards”: report

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, February 10, 2021

Canada’s Net Zero Future: Finding our way in the global transition is a policy document released on February 8  by the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, the national research network created by Environment and Climate Change Canada in 2020. The report provides a simple definition of net zero: “shifting toward technologies and energy systems that do not produce emissions, and offsetting any remaining emissions by removing GHGs from the atmosphere and storing them permanently.” Based on technical analysis by Navius Research which examined more than 60 modelling scenarios, the report is announced as “the first in-depth scenario report to explore how Canada can reach net zero emissions by 2050”. It concludes that the goal is doable, using two pathways: “safe bets” and “wild cards”.

Most impact will be made by “Safe bets—commercially available, cost-effective, existing technologies like electric vehicles, heat pumps, and smart grids” which they estimate can generate at least two-thirds of the emission reductions required. In the longer-term, to reach the 2050 target, the authors rely on results from unproven “wild cards”— “high-risk, high reward technologies like advanced biofuels, zero-emissions hydrogen, and some types of engineered negative emission technologies that are not yet commercially available”.   The conclusion: “To scale up safe bets, governments should continue to steadily increase the stringency of policies such as carbon pricing and flexible regulations. To advance wild cards, governments should spread their bets—supporting a portfolio of emerging technologies, without delaying progress on existing smart bet solutions over the next crucial decade.”

Of the four formal Recommendations, #4 is “Governments should work to ensure that the transition to net zero is fair and inclusive”.  ….. “It is vital that governments understand the full range of implications the transition will have on all of Canada’s regions, sectors, workers, communities, and income groups. This is necessary to ensure that policies successfully address adverse impacts and work to lift up groups who have historically been left behind, instead of exacerbating those inequalities. This will require direct engagement with all of those groups.”

The lead author of the report is Jason Dion, Mitigation Research Director at the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, but the report is a “consensus document” involving many advisors who compose its Mitigation Expert Panel Working Group, as well as expert external reviewers.  Two accompanying blogs condense the message in “What puts the “net” in net zero?” (regarding three means of negative emissions) and “Net zero is compatible with economic growth if we do it right” (emphasizing the importance of likelihood of GDP growth through the recommended policies.) 

How “clean” are clean energy and electric vehicles?

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, January 19, 2021

Several articles and reports published recently have re-visited the question: how “clean” is “clean energy”? Here is a selection, beginning in October 2020 with a multi-part series titled Recycling Clean Energy Technologies , from the Union of Concerned Scientists. It includes: “Wind Turbine blades don’t have to end up in landfill”; “Cracking the code on recycling energy storage batteries“; and “Solar Panel Recycling: Let’s Make It Happen” .

The glaring problem with Canada’s solar sector and how to fix it” (National Observer, Nov. 2020) states that “While solar is heralded as a clean, green source of renewable energy, this is only true if the panels are manufactured sustainably and can be recycled and kept out of landfills.” Yet right now, Canada has no capacity to recycle the 350 tonnes of solar pv waste produced in 2016 alone, let alone the 650,000 tonnes Canada is expected to produce by 2050. The author points the finger of responsibility at Canadian provinces and territories, which are responsible for waste management and extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations. A description of solar recycling and waste management systems in Europe and the U.S. points to better practices.

No ‘green halo’ for renewables: First Solar, Veolia, others tackle wind and solar environmental impacts” appeared in Utility Drive (Dec. 14) as a “long read” discussion of progress to uphold environmental and health and safety standards in both the production and disposal of solar panels and wind turbine blades. The article points to examples of industry standards and third-party certification of consumer goods, such as The Green Electronics Council (GEC) and NSF International. The article also quotes experts such as University of California professor Dustin Mulvaney, author of Solar Power: Innovation, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice (2019) and numerous other articles which have tracked the environmental impact, and labour standards, of the solar energy industry.

Regarding the recycling of wind turbine blades: A press release on December 8 2020 describes a new agreement between GE Renewable Energy and Veolia, whereby Veolia will recycle blades removed from its U.S.-based onshore wind turbines by shredding them at a processing facility in Missouri, so that they can be used as a replacement for coal, sand and clay in cement manufacturing. A broader article appeared in Grist, “Today’s wind turbine blades could become tomorrow’s bridges” (Jan. 8 2021) which notes the GE- Veoli initiative and describes other emerging and creative ways to deal with blade waste, such as the Re-Wind project. Re-Wind is a partnership involving universities in the U.S., Ireland, and Northern Ireland who are engineering ways to repurpose the blades for electrical transmission towers, bridges, and more. The article also quotes a senior wind technology engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the U.S. who is experimenting with production materials to find more recyclable materials from which to build wind turbine blades in the first place. He states: “Today, recyclability is something that is near the top of the list of concerns” for wind energy companies and blade manufacturers alike …. All of these companies are saying, ‘We need to change what we’re doing, number one because it’s the right thing to do, number two because regulations might be coming down the road. Number three, because we’re a green industry and we want to remain a green industry.’”

These are concerns also top of mind regarding the electric vehicle industry, where both production and recycling of batteries can be detrimental to the planet. The Battery Paradox: How the electric vehicle boom is draining communities and the planet is a December 2020 report by the Dutch Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO). It reviews the social and environmental impacts of the whole battery value chain, (mining, production, and recycling) and the mining of key minerals used in Lithium-ion batteries (lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite and manganese). The report concludes that standardization of battery cells, modules and packs would increase recycling rates and efficiency, but ultimately, “To relieve the pressure on the planet, …. any energy transition strategy should prioritize reducing demand for batteries and cars… Strategies proposed include ride-sharing, car-sharing and smaller vehicles.”

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