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Report: Clean Energy Must Not Rely on Dirty Mining

By on April 22, 2019

Pit of Codelco’s Chuquicamata copper mine outside Calama, Chile.

Research exposes extent of mineral demand for clean technologies

SAN JUAN – Earthworks published new research detailing projected minerals demand to build the electric vehicles, solar arrays, wind turbines and other renewable energy infrastructure needed to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and avert the most disastrous impacts of climate change.

The research, conducted by the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF), shows that as demand for these minerals skyrockets, “the already significant environmental and human impacts of hardrock mining are likely to rise steeply as well. It shows the need for a broad shift in the clean technologies sector towards more responsible minerals sourcing,” reads a release by Earthworks, a nonprofit dedicated to exposing the health, environmental, economic, social and cultural impacts of mining and energy extraction.

“We have an opportunity, if we act now, to ensure that our emerging clean energy economy is truly clean–as well as just and equitable–and not dependent on dirty mining,” said Payal Sampat, director of Earthworks’ Mining Program. “As we scale up clean energy technologies in pursuit of our necessarily ambitious climate goals, we must protect community health, water, human rights and the environment.”

Research highlights:

  • Under a 100 percent renewable energy scenario, metal requirements could rise dramatically, requiring new primary and recycled sources.
  • Clean technologies rely on a variety of minerals, principally cobalt, nickel, lithium, copper, aluminum, silver and rare earths.
  • Cobalt, lithium and rare earths are the metals of most concern for increasing clean tech demand and supply risks.
  • Batteries for electric vehicles are the most significant driver of accelerated minerals demand.
  • Recycled sources can significantly reduce primary demand, but new mining is likely to take place and new mining developments linked to renewable energy are already underway.
  • Responsible sourcing is needed when supply cannot be met by recycled sources.

Earthworks commissioned the research as part of its new “Making Clean Energy Clean, Just & Equitable” project, “which aims to ensure that the transition to renewable energy is powered by responsibly and equitably sourced minerals, minimizing dependence on new extraction and moving the mining industry toward more responsible practices,” the organization said.

“The responsible materials transition will need to be scaled up just as ambitiously as the 100 percent renewable energy transition,” said Dr. Sven Teske, Research Director at the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures.

The report found that the transition will require businesses and governments to “dramatically scale up” the use of recycled minerals, use materials more efficiently, require mining operations to “adhere to stringent, independent environmental and human rights standards, and prioritize investments in electric-powered public transit,” Earthworks said.

“The renewable energy transition will only be sustainable if it ensures human rights for the communities where the mining to supply renewable energy and battery technologies takes place,” said Elsa Dominish, Senior Research Consultant at the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures. “If manufacturers commit to responsible sourcing this will encourage more mines to engage in responsible practices and certification. There is also an urgent need to invest in recycling and reuse schemes to ensure the valuable metals used in these technologies are recovered, so only what is necessary is mined.”

The nonprofit stressed that the extraction of minerals already fuels conflict, human rights violations, water pollution and wildlife and forest destruction.

“Most of the world’s cobalt, used in rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles and phones, is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, often by hand in unsafe conditions using child labor,” Earthworks pointed out. “Earlier this year in Brazil, the collapse of two tailings dams at Vale’s Brumadinho iron ore mine killed hundreds of workers and local residents. Independent research that analyzes decades of data on mine waste dam failures reveals that these catastrophic failures are occurring more frequently and are predicted to continue to increase in frequency,” the report’s release reads.

Access the full report here.

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