Mining Ontario's Ring of Fire could help build green energy — but also damage vital peatlands
Also: The environmental price of the war in Ukraine
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- Mining Ontario's Ring of Fire could help build green energy — but also damage vital peatlands
- The environmental price of the war in Ukraine
- Tree bridges are helping sloths survive deforestation in Costa Rica
The climate trade-off of developing Ontario's Ring of Fire
Roughly 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., lies one of the most carbon-rich peatlands on the planet. This water-logged landscape of lakes, ponds and rivers carpeted in moss is known as the Hudson Bay Lowlands — or the "breathing lands" to nearby First Nations.
But along with its status as an enormous stash of carbon, the area has become synonymous with a mining development known as the Ring of Fire, which the Ontario government has supported for more than a decade and included in a new "critical minerals" strategy announced by Ontario Premier Doug Ford today.
With this renewed push by the Ford government and Canadian mining company Noront Resources to extract the minerals needed for electric vehicles and clean energy, questions are surfacing about the impact of peatland mining on Canada's climate goals.
The Hudson Bay Lowlands are often cited as the second-largest peatland complex in the world, after the Western Siberian Lowlands in Russia. Ontario's lowlands squirrel away 30 billion tonnes of carbon and soak up more from the atmosphere every year.
Lorna Harris, a carbon and peatland researcher at Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, estimates that the area of the proposed Ring of Fire development alone locks away the equivalent of around 1.6 billion tonnes of CO2.
Releasing even some of that through damage to the landscape could create significant emissions of CO2 and methane.
"There's a lot at stake in terms of carbon and climate," Harris said.
Since the Ring of Fire was discovered by Noront Resources in 2007 (and named by company founder and Johnny Cash fan Richard Nemis), the hype was around chromite, which is used to make stainless steel. More recently, the conversation has shifted to minerals like cobalt needed for electric car batteries — especially given that the transportation sector makes up around 30 per cent of Canada's emissions.
Harris said she's "a bit skeptical" about how much mining in the Ring of Fire is actually for green energy and how much of that narrative is simply a way for the companies involved to push ahead with development.
"If it is a big deposit of these minerals for electric vehicles," she said, "we really have to weigh up what's OK in terms of how much carbon from the peatlands are we willing to let go to have this green energy in batteries. Is it worth it?"
According to a 2020 presentation from Noront Resources, nickel, copper and cobalt — each essential for today's electric vehicle batteries — are all abundant in the Ring of Fire. But the most advanced projects there centre on nickel, copper, platinum and palladium, in addition to chromium, a material in wind turbines. The area also contains diamonds and gold.
The company hopes to start production in 2026.
"I think at the end of the day, they just want to attack any mineral that's sitting in the backyard of the First Nations," said Chief Robert Nakogee of Fort Albany First Nation, who fishes and hunts on the Albany River, which flows through the Hudson Bay Lowlands to his community on James Bay.
Nakogee is one of five Indigenous chiefs who sent a Jan. 19 letter to Steven Guilbeault, Canada's minister of environment and climate change, expressing concerns about the climate impacts of mining in the Ring of Fire and the "dishonourable" start to the regional assessment process, which began with terms of reference being drafted without Indigenous involvement.
In the minister's response, obtained by CBC's What On Earth radio program, Guilbeault said he extended the comment period for the terms of reference and committed to direct engagement with the chiefs.
"I would also like to reiterate my personal commitment to meet with you in the spring of 2022, to continue our important conversation on the future of the regional assessment in the Ring of Fire area," the letter states.
The federal and Ontario governments did not respond to What On Earth's requests for comment by publication time, but Greg Rickford, Ontario's minister of northern development, mines, natural resources and forestry, told the CBC's Mike Crawley that mining is essential to the energy transition.
"Without mining there is no such thing as a green economy," he said. "Without those critical minerals, you will not be able to drive a clean, green automobile of the future."
Two of the area's First Nations, Webequie and Marten Falls, are partnering with Noront Resources on access roads that would connect the Indigenous communities to the Ring of Fire mineral site.
"This not only enables mining development but also provides much-needed infrastructure that will improve the lives of local First Nations in the Ring of Fire region," a Noront company spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
The two First Nations did not reply for comment by publication time.
For Nakogee, the Ring of Fire issue cuts deeper than economic development. It's about preserving the health of his environment, culture and the planet.
"It's the world's lungs. I'm not sure if [the mining companies] understand that," Nakogee said. "It might look like dollar bills, but it means something else for us up here."
In response to a recent issue that contained a story on the surge of raccoons in Calgary, Eva Durance had this to say:
"I seriously object to [using] 'trash pandas' in reference to raccoons. Dividing the world into species we love and those we dislike or even hate is ignorant and arrogant. There are species or individual critters that may be helpful to us or a nuisance, but they are all at bottom simply beings living their lives as best they can and know how. The fact that we often supply useful habitats for them, having usually destroyed their non-manmade ones, such as lawns and playing fields for Canada geese, and then object to them using them is only another example of our feeling of entitlement. We praise humans for initiative, but condemn it in other species. Time for a bit of humility!"
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Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.
There's also a radio show and podcast! Northern Ontario has rich mineral deposits that can help fight climate change. But digging them out risks destroying one of the planet's largest carbon stores. This week on What On Earth, the tensions and trade-offs in the so-called Ring of Fire. What On Earth airs Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.
The Big Picture: The environmental price of the Ukraine war
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has held the world's attention for three weeks now. Much of the emphasis, naturally, has been on efforts to minimize the bloodshed, which has taken a variety of forms, from diplomatic negotiations to strict sanctions to a spirited defence by Ukraine forces. But there are also bigger environmental consequences of this type of conflict.
For one thing, Ukraine has a number of nuclear reactors, which could unleash death and disease if they were damaged; in fact, Russian forces have directly threatened both the Zaporizhzhia nuclear complex in Enerhodar and the infamous Chornobyl plant near the border with Belarus. Ukraine is home to a lot of heavy industry, and the demolition of old mines and chemical plants could also release all manner of toxins into the surrounding landscape — perhaps most worryingly, bodies of water.
United Nations reporting from 2018 on the separatist Donbas region in eastern Ukraine seems to foreshadow the environmental destruction that is likely to await the rest of the country. The UN found that constant fighting not only poisons the local ecosystem but can also lead to a rise of invasive species (in the case of the Donbas, the sunfish and the Asian lady beetle, among others) and a greatly increased risk of wildfires.
Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web
- Agriculture is necessary for sustaining life on the planet, but many of its current practices emit large amounts of carbon. How do we curtail farming emissions while feeding an ever-expanding world? This CBC feature explores that question.
Tree bridges are helping sloths survive deforestation in Costa Rica
Zoologist Rebecca Cliffe knows some people see sloths as "boring, lazy animals," but she believes there's something special about their slow pace.
"I always describe it a bit like trying to swim through a lake of Nutella," the sloth expert and enthusiast told Matt Galloway, host of CBC Radio's The Current.
"Everything is in slow motion, and they're just very peaceful, lovely creatures that don't require much for survival."
What they do require are trees, in dense proximity with each other. Sloths spend most of their lives in trees high above the ground, safe from dangers such as cars and electricity lines.
They also use leaves for shade and sustenance, and vines and branches to travel.
"Sloths can't run and they can't jump, so they really need trees to physically connect and overlap," Cliffe said.
For years, this wasn't an issue for most sloth populations. But as expanded land development has cleared patches of rainforests in places like Costa Rica, sloths are being forced to move along the ground more often, leaving them susceptible to attacks and even death.
"I first came [to Costa Rica] 13 years ago and it was a completely different place," Cliffe said. "It was wild and the roads were single-lane and the trees would connect over the road — and in the last 10 years, development has gone completely out of control."
That's why Cliffe and her non-profit, the Sloth Conservation Foundation, focus on saving not just sloths, but also their habitats. They work with communities that are developing land to help keep sloths and their needs in mind.
"I think what's important is that people do [economic development] in the right way and we do it with the wildlife in mind," she said.
One way Cliffe and her crew are doing this is by constructing special bridges for sloths to travel on. "These are essentially wildlife bridges that help sloths get from tree to tree in urban areas and [avoid] … having to come down to the ground."
Cliffe said these bridges are remarkably simple: each one is made of a single string of rope, tied between trees at alternating heights. These ropes can go as high as 50 metres in the air — and some of them even cross over buildings and houses.
Although ropes aren't natural to sloths, Cliffe said they're accustomed to climbing on thin structures like vines. After some initial hesitancy, "as soon as they realize that this structure is safe, then they climb on it," she said. "If it's there, they will use it once they trust it."
Cliffe said almost 30 other species of animals have also used the bridges so far, including monkeys and lizards.
She is aware that human expansion into wild places will not stop. But she said the key moving forward is to expand in ways that will allow wildlife and humans to coexist peacefully. This will require some flexibility on humans' part, but she said work is being done to keep animals like sloths in mind, including by governments.
Last year, the government of Costa Rica announced that both two-fingered and three-fingered sloths will become the national symbols of the country. Cliffe said this announcement gives sloths certain legal protections, including ensuring the conservation of sloths in Costa Rica and implementing aerial wildlife crossings on national routes.
It also benefits the country's tourism industry, according to Cliffe. She said Costa Rica's tourism industry generates billions of dollar every year, and that's in part due to the sloths.
"[Tourists] want to see sloths, and they look on Google and Costa Rica is the place to see sloths, so everyone's coming here to see them," she said.
– Mouhamad Rachini
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