The Sunday Magazine

The social and environmental costs of mining for green energy

Renewable energy technology offers an object lesson in just how hard it is to be green. As Clare Church, a researcher with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, points out, green energy technologies — from solar panels to high-capacity rechargeable batteries — rely on raw materials like lithium and cobalt. And just like the fossil fuels they're supposed to replace, they have to be dug out of the earth, often with significant environmental and social costs.
An artisanal miner works at Tilwizembe, a former industrial copper-cobalt mine, outside of Kolwezi, the capital city of Lualaba Province in the south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on June 11, 2016. (Kenny Katombe/Reuters)
Clare Church is a Policy Analyst for the Resilience Program at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). (International Institute for Sustainable Development)

The transition to so-called green energy has the potential to be anything but green, according to Clare Church, a researcher with the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

Countries, like Canada, that are committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 (just 30 years away) will have to drastically reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and turn to new sources of energy.

The expected growth in solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles and rechargeable batteries will bring an increase in the demand for the metals and minerals that make these technologies possible.

That surge in demand will be massive, Church told Peter Armstrong, guest host of The Sunday Edition.

"The minerals that are required for solar panels — which includes indium, iron, nickel, lead, copper — they're projected to increase in demand by 300 per cent through 2050," she said. "When we talk about minerals like cobalt and lithium for electric vehicles, the amount that they're projected to increase is upwards of 1,000 per cent."

Holding actors along the entire supply chain accountable is extremely important.- Clare Church

The resource extraction needed for green energy is freighted with social and environmental costs. The mining industry has come in for scrutiny and criticism for its connections to human rights abuses, violent conflict and exploitative working conditions. It's also been responsible for deforestation, environmental contamination and biodiversity loss in different parts of the world.

For Church, a key concern is whether the mining of these materials might have the potential to further exacerbate violence and conflict in the countries where they are found.

"The minerals that are required for the low-carbon transition are all meant to be quite green. But we found that significant reserves of these minerals are found in states that are struggling with fragility, struggling with corruption."

Church pointed to the mining of cobalt, which is the key component in rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles, as one of the primary areas of concern.

Anything Canada does on this will send a signal to the rest of the industry.- Clare Church

"About 50 per cent of the world's cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). And, as we know, the DRC has a very complicated relationship with its mineral governance. It's home to what are classically known as the conflict minerals," she said. "Although cobalt is not a classic conflict mineral, it has still been linked to child labor. It has been linked to violence, extortion, corruption."

In December 2019, International Rights Advocates launched a lawsuit on behalf of 14 Congolese families whose children were killed or injured while mining for cobalt. The defendants named in the suit include Apple, Microsoft, Dell, Tesla and Google's parent company, Alphabet.

"I think as we're pursuing sustainability, we need to be sure that we're pursuing all aspects of sustainability. A core aspect of that is promoting peace," Church added. "Holding actors along the entire supply chain accountable is extremely important."

A key part of the solution, she said, is expanding existing legislation to minerals used for green energy technologies, which are not currently covered under "conflict mineral" regulations.

Canada, in particular, needs to take a leading role, Church said.

The majority of the world's mining companies are headquartered here in Canada, and Toronto is seen as the top global hub for mining finance.

Canada could be "a huge force for change," Church said. "Anything Canada does on this will send a signal to the rest of the industry."

"I think the power that consumers have here is absolutely massive.- Clare Church

Another important part of the solution would be the recycling of minerals to avoid waste, and that process is nowhere near where it needs to be, she added. "The recovery rates are certainly not high enough but also the infrastructure is just not in place for this."

Ultimately, Church believes it's consumers, as the end users of the products that rely on minerals, who can exert some of the greatest influence.

"Consumers have considerable power … The core example of this being diamonds 10 years ago, when consumers were demanding safer, more ethically-sourced diamonds. And now you can actually purchase the diamond and know exactly where it comes from.

"I think the power that consumers have here is absolutely massive."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full conversation.


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