It is crucial that the slow but much-needed progress in renewable energy use accounts for the fact that even alternative energy sources have a damaging impact on the environment and communities. This opinion piece for CIPER looks at the current imbalance between mining and non-mining countries and offers a roadmap for the future to ensure the cost of the eagerly-awaited energy transition is recognised and analysed as a problem and met by everyone.
There seems to be no doubt in anyone’s mind that in the hit Netflix series Don’t Look Up, the meteor that will destroy the planet unless drastic action is taken is a metaphor for the climate emergency. A quickly-approaching threat that will impact the whole of humanity. To address this threat, we need a radical shift in the way we live, including what we eat, how we move and how much, what we buy and how much energy we use.
A certain amount of progress is being made. Whilst almost 85% of the total energy we use comes from fossil fuels (gas, coal and oil), so far this century wind and solar power generation has gone from being practically non-existent to accounting for almost 10% of global energy generation. Technology improvements have reduced the cost of generating electricity from renewable sources to the point where they can now compete with fossil fuels. The real clincher, though, has come more recently: the powerful, influential EU and US governments have now announced meaningful measures. By 2035, the EU plans to ban sales of petrol and diesel cars and the US government’s goal is to build a carbon pollution-free power sector.
We are not seeing progress, however, in terms of discussion and understanding, and even less so in ensuring that the pressures and challenges that these changes will trigger in developing countries, especially mining countries, are addressed early on.
People are starting to talk about the costs and the need for a just energy transition, but the discussion tends to be limited to job losses in disappearing industries, such as thermal power plants and coal mines. However, the energy transition has a much problematic side: it requires significant amounts of minerals, and their extraction involves major environmental and social impacts. By way of example, generating electricity from wind power requires nine times more minerals than it would take to generate the same amount of energy using gas. Electric vehicles use six times more mineral inputs than conventional cars . Increased production of batteries, solar panels and wind turbines will drive up demand for the minerals required to make them exponentially.
Mining is an extremely important activity in many developing countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, which depend on the industry to create jobs, generate exports and secure much-needed public sector revenues through taxes and royalties. As a result, in the name of “development”, the governments of these countries tend to see an increase in demand for minerals as a blessing, overlooking or playing down the associated environmental and social problems.
Mining activity uses tremendous amounts of water and energy and pollutes the land, air and water. It can impact biodiversity due to changes in land use, and in some countries, is linked with child labour, sexual abuse, corruption and armed conflict . It also poses the risk of large-scale accidents, as evidenced by the 2019 collapse of a tailings dam in Brumadinho, Brazil, which killed over 250 people. In Bougainville, Papua Nueva Guinea, the environmental impact and disruptions to social and cultural structures generated by the operation of a coal and gold mine is considered to be one of the triggers for a civil war that lasted a decade and cost almost ten thousand lives .
Even in a country like Chile with an outward image of a successful mining country, there are multiple cases of mining companies that have been investigated and fined for environmental breaches (Escondida, Pascua Lama, Candelaria, and Caserones, among others), not to mention lead and arsenic poisoning in mining waste in Arica, dozens of highly dangerous abandoned tailings dams and the rampant corruption following SQM and the Dominga project, to name but a few.
It is hardly surprising, then, that social movements and an increasingly well-informed civil society are determined not to allow businesses and governments to wipe out ecosystems and communities near mines. In Argentina, for example – a country with minerals, but not a mining country, largely thanks to social movements – mining is prohibited or severely restricted in almost half of the provinces with mineral deposits.
To date, the negative impact of mining has been suffered almost exclusively by communities living near mines, not by the rest of the country’s population, and even less so by people who living in non-mining countries which benefit from mineral extraction. Although citizens of high-income countries are increasingly careful about what they eat and wear and how much energy they use, they largely remain blissfully unaware of the costs generated by their demand for minerals in other parts of the world. Unaware that drinking canned drinks means that women in Guinea are forced to walk long distances to get water. That there is child labour behind some of the minerals in their mobile phones. That the copper in their electric cars pollutes the water supply and does irreparable damage to the health of children in remote villages in the Andes.
It is clear, then, why until now, the countries that are spearheading the energy transition – typically non-mining countries – have considered this factor as no more than a “risk”. The risk that social conflict in mining countries will make the transition process more difficult and more expensive. However, as the energy transition forges ahead, and the demand for – and prices of – minerals grow alongside it, countries with mineral deposits will inevitably face mounting pressure to respond to their need for income by developing projects in the field and at the same time, to citizen demands to protect the environment and their lives. As this pressure ramps up, so conflicts are also likely to rise; what currently appear to be local problems will become global concerns. In other words, conflict is about to go global.
The considerations outlined above lead inexorably to one key question: Can mining be done differently? For many, the answer is a hard “no”. However, from a global perspective, stopping mining completely looks impossible and reducing global energy and mineral use looks unrealistic. At least in the short term, and possibly in the medium term – even if reuse and recycling is increased exponentially – the minerals required for the energy transition are simply are not available .
As we move towards a post-extractive future, then, a series of other questions arises: How can we incentivise the changes needed to start to forge a different path ahead in this sector? Who is going to take the initiative? What role should – and can – be played by mining countries and the governments of consumer countries? Who will cover the costs?
No serious attempt appears to have been made to date to force companies to develop technologies and operating processes that radically reduce the negative impact they generate. Mining companies must be held responsible for the costs they impose upon society; this is basic economic theory, but there has been neither the political will nor ability to oblige them to do so. In certain cases, demonstrations opposing specific projects have led to technical amendments reducing their negative environmental impact (as well as their profitability). In Chubut, Argentina, for example, the Navidad gold mining project announced a change of technology to eliminate the use of cyanide, which was banned under local legislation in response to social demands.
The Escazú Agreement – which was rejected by Sebastián Piñera’s government but will be signed by the incoming government under Gabriel Boric – stipulates that as part of participatory processes around decisions with an environmental impact, including the approval of mining projects, information must be published on “the available technologies for use”, offering transparent information on all the technologies available, rather than simply proposing the most profitable option for the company. The effective implementation of this requirement will need to be closely monitored. Another fundamental requirement for major mining projects should be the generation, availability and assessment of the various types of knowledge required to understand and critically evaluate the possible alternatives, including scientific knowledge.
It is hard to imagine an energy transition without minerals. It is not acceptable, however, to sacrifice ecosystems and communities to extract the minerals required to end fossil fuel use. The countries currently spearheading the transition must not continue to turn a blind eye, and the countries that will suffer the impact must not sit and wait for high-income countries to come up with truly transformative initiatives. We will need to be creative; to explore new ways of exerting influence not only over multinationals but also over global institutions, to ensure the costs involved in the energy transition are recognised and analysed as problems and met by everyone.
If we are to achieve that, it is crucial that we consider civil society an ally. We need to explore new formats for engagement between local communities, organised civil society, companies and states, to drive change not only at the country level but also globally. Until now, resistance from civil society has been considered a problem; a barrier to overcome in the development of a project. Social agreement, or social license, is just another resource required for a project to go ahead. However, under a transformative approach, social license should perhaps be thought of more as a driver of change. Its transformative potential could then be better understood and leveraged by the governments of developing countries to globalise both conflict and solutions.
Unlike in Argentina, where demonstrations have blocked the development of a mining industry, the industry in Chile was founded largely in the 1991s, against a backdrop of demobilisation of civil society. The pendulum has now swung to the other extreme, with a constitutional process well underway that would have been unthinkable just a few years back. The evidence suggests that the link between society and the environment will be a core component of the proposed constitution set to be delivered by the Convention, and that the framework for action to be defined will help to set aside the old aid-focused, short-term approach. We need a long-term, transformative, truly inclusive approach, with civil society playing a key role in processes and the public good prioritised, at last, over the private sector’s interests.
This article is also available in Spanish: Cómo hacer de la transición energética un desarrollo justo – CIPER Chile
NOTES AND REFERENCES:
 HUND, K.; PORTA, D. L.; FABREGAS, T. P.; LAING, T.; and DREXHAGE, J. (2020). The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition. (World Bank; International Energy Agency) + (2021). The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions.
 See for example: IEA (International Energy Agency) (2021): The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions (p. 287).Church, C. and Crawford, A. (2018): Green Conflict Minerals: The fuels of conflict in the transition to a low-carbon economy (p. 56); International Institute for Sustainable Development + Teschner, B. A. (2012). Small-scale mining in Ghana: The government and the galamsey. Resources Policy, 37(3), 308–314. + Bebbington, A. (2012). Social Conflict, Economic Development and Extractive Industry: Evidence from South America (Routledge=. + Cuvelier, J., Vlassenroot, K., & Olin, N. (2014). “Resources, conflict and governance: A critical review”. The Extractive Industries and Society, 1(2), 340–350. + Sharland, L., Grice, T., & Zeiger, S. (2017). Preventing and countering violent extremism in Africa: The Role of the Mining Sector. (Australian Strategic Policy Institute). + Sovacool, B. K. (2021). “When subterranean slavery supports sustainability transitions? power, patriarchy, and child labor in artisanal Congolese cobalt mining”. The Extractive Industries and Society, 8(1), 271-293.
 HILSON, C. J. (2006). “Mining and civil conflict: Revisiting grievance at Bougainville”, in Minerals & Energy-Raw Materials Report, 21(2), 23–35. + LASLETT, K. (2014). State crime on the margins of empire: Rio Tinto, the war on Bougainville and resistance to mining (Pluto Press). + ADAMO, A. (2018). “A cursed and fragmented Island: History and conflict analysis in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea”, in Small Wars & Insurgencies, 29(1), 164–186.
 For example, if all the copper scrap available in one year was recycled, it would barely cover half of the current demand for copper. See more in LOIBL, A., and ESPINOZA, L. A. T. (2021). “Current challenges in copper recycling: aligning insights from material flow analysis with technological research developments and industry issues in Europe and North America”, in Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 169, 105462. + ESPINOZA, L. A. T. (2012). “The contribution of recycling to the supply of metals and minerals” (No. 20, p. 8). POLINARES working paper.