The delusion of mining for the climate

From Indonesia to Ireland

Decades of ignoring the climate crisis has led to the now rapidly closing window to reverse the most devastating of its impacts. We must act rapidly. But industry and governments have disastrously, and intentionally, oversimplified: our task is to decarbonise, the solution – electrification. Yet by simply switching the power source we will need astronomical supplies of so-called critical minerals, which means ramping up mining – both far and near. Is this truly the answer, or is this just business as usual?

By Lynda Sullivan


A global extractive frontier

In October last year, I visited the Indonesian island of Sulawesi as part of a solidarity visit to communities resisting the extraction of ‘critical minerals’ – the raw materials identified as necessary for the transition to a low carbon future. The case of Sulawesi highlights how some are bearing the brunt of the ‘Green Transition’, and shows just how dirty ‘green’ can be.

Sulawesi has been designated a global biodiversity hotspot – home to a rich ecosystem of rainforests, rivers, mountains and endemic wildlife. Pepper farming, rainforest management and fishing are common ways the local population live with the land. Unfortunately, the people and ecology of Sulawesi are also sitting on the world’s largest nickel reserves.

Nickel is used in stainless steel fabrication and battery manufacture – therefore desired for building wind turbines and manufacturing electric vehicles (EVs), amongst other uses. Corporations from Australia, Brazil, China and other major economies have set up shop in Sulawesi to extract and process this metal, and the effects on the local population have been devastating. Many farmers have had their land appropriated without any notice and with little or no compensation, their pepper farms destroyed as they watched – held back by the police who were there to protect the interests of the companies. Landslides from mines have destroyed communities’ water supplies. Toxic waste from the coal-fired power plants and water discharge has affected marine life – putting the livelihoods of fisherfolk at risk.

As we drove through what is known as ‘the world’s epicentre of nickel production’ – the Morowali Industrial Park – a hellscape full of mines, smelters and processing plants, which stretches along the contaminated coast of Central Sulawesi, I was left with no doubt about what a ‘sacrifice zone’ feels like. I could feel it in my lungs and on my skin. I could smell it in the smoky air and taste it from the dusty plates (‘best if you avoid the fish’). I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live and work and eat here every day. Not only do workers have to contend with the toxic environment, there are also frequent accidents within the mines and plants due to unsafe working conditions for an un-unionised workforce. Not long after we left the island 18 workers were killed and 41 injured in an furnace explosion at a chinese-owned nickel plant.

The women of Torobulu, Sulawesi resist nickel mining while facing criminalisation

Image: Yes to Life No to Mining

Expanding to the peripheries within

The case of Sulawesi might appear to support the European and North American case for ‘bringing mining home’ (aka ‘onshoring’ or ‘insourcing’) where there are supposedly better environmental regulations and human rights standards. Yet environmental regulations at home have not, in fact, been doing a very good job of protecting the environment. Rather, they regulate its destruction; they make destruction regular. We only need to look at Lough Neagh to see how our system is failing nature; our largest lake on these islands, and the principal source of drinking water for 40% of the North of Ireland, is ‘dying in plain sight’ due to our extractive industries of choice – industrial agriculture and mining, along with excessive sewage discharge.

The blame for the toxic algal growth that smothered the lake last summer, which lies waiting to return, along with the ‘catastrophic collapse’ of key species, and possibly the entire ecosystem, lies at the door of the various public bodies who facilitated the damage. South of the border, environmental regulations have watched from the sidelines as GAA pitches are torn in two – such as occurred in Magheracloone, Monaghan after the San Gobain gypsum mine hollowed out the ground beneath the pitch and flooded it with mine water. The company is now seeking permission to expand, against the wishes of local residents. More examples of officially sanctioned environmental devastation across the island abound.

It is certainly true that human rights abuses as a result of engaging in environmental activism in the Global North do not compare with the Global South. Latin America is the deadliest place in the world to be a land and environmental defender – with 9 in 10 murders of activists in 2022 taking place there. In the Global North state violence against environmental activists hasn’t reached these levels, but the same elements are lurking. The local communities of the Sperrins in County Tyrone, who are resisting a multi-billion dollar gold mining project, have faced intimidation, assault, online trolling, sexual harassment and death threats. An anonymous caller threatened to put one local man’s children into body bags. And the police, rather than pursue those carrying out this harassment, surveil the community and service the mining company.

It is also tempting to believe that ‘insourcing’ mining has a justice element to it – given the centuries of colonial and neo-colonial flow of extracted resources, and the accompanying exploitation of people, from the Global South to the Global North. However, when mining does ‘come home’, it does not settle justly. It is the peripheries of Europe which are being readied for sacrifice – the Balkans, Iberia, Fennoscandia and Ireland. And within these countries again it is those on the margins – rural and, in the case of Fennoscandia, indigenous communities who are in the firing line. Likewise, in North America Tribal Nations from Nevada to Dakota are seeing the little land they were left with now being invaded for mining.

Local communities in the Jadar Valley, Serbia are resisting a Rio Tinto Lithium mine

Image: Ivan Bjelic

Donning the green superhero cloak

This mining boom across the Global North does not represent a redistribution – it is not the case that if they mine more here it will mean less elsewhere. We are seeing an intensification of mining globally – ostensibly, to meet the urgent need to decarbonise. Using words like ‘critical’ deliberately implies that these minerals and metals are critical for our survival, however the reality is a different story.

The demand projections for these so-called critical minerals are astounding. Global demand for lithium is projected to increase by 500% by 2050. The EU alone will require 60 times more lithium by then. Similar astronomical projections exist for other ‘critical minerals’ like nickel, cobalt, and rare earth metals. Taking copper – another green-painted metal, demand is projected to rise to 36.6 million tonnes annually, yet supply (if it’s all extracted) is forecast at 30.1 million tonnes per year – so there isn’t even enough in the ground to satisfy this eternally increasing demand.

What is frustrating, and dangerous, is the deliberate confounding of the projected demand and what is actually needed to tackle the climate crisis in a just and equitable way. To start with, only a small percentage of critical minerals are destined for renewable technologies for society’s energy needs. Only 7% of nickel, for example, is currently used for batteries. Other destinations for these minerals are war, aerospace, the construction industry and consumerism.

A large percentage of lithium is used for what is classified as ‘the green transition’ – with 70% of the metal heading to the electric vehicle (EV) market. However, EVs are not the climate solution they are claimed to be. The private car model was flawed from the start – leading to a decimation of our public transport systems, deadly air pollution and badly designed urban centres. We need free, reliable, accessible and well-designed public transport to replace the wasteful model of the private car, not industrial policies that lock us into reliance upon its expansion.

Lithium, cobalt and nickel are also used for the manufacture of electronic consumer goods, such as smartphones and laptops – for which there is demand far beyond any reasonable need, due to manipulative advertising and profit-maximising practices such as planned obsolescence. Indeed, tech giants like Amazon deliberately dump millions of new products every year to maintain markets for more needless production and consumption.

To debunk the greenwashing we also need to question the destination of much of the ‘clean energy’ produced by renewable technologies. Is it to meet society’s needs – like heating homes, running hospitals and schools, fueling public transport, etc? Data centres, for example, are set to consume 32% of the Irish state’s electricity by 2026. Then there’s fuelling the wasteful private-car-heavy transport sector; in 2021 private car use accounted for almost half of all transport energy demand. So it is clear that the scramble for critical minerals isn’t about saving the planet. It’s more about profit and power. And in North America and Europe, it’s about realising that they have been left behind by China in securing their access to the critical minerals they’ll need to maintain both.

Hence we are seeing the rapid emergence of policies, legislation and ‘partnerships’ aimed at clawing back the upper hand. This island is caught under the UK’s Critical Minerals Strategy 2022 and its subsequent ‘Critical Minerals Refresh 2023’, and the EU’s Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA). Both the UK’s strategies and the EU’s CRMA aim to deepen and widen mining in the Global South (where they will continue to extract the majority of minerals), and within their borders. The CRMA is more developed in how it will facilitate mining expansion. It was hurried through at record speed, being passed by the European Parliament on 12th December 2023 after being proposed by the EU Commission on 16th March of the same year. This left little time for communities on the ground to grapple with the proposal, much less have any influence.

A list of Strategic Projects is currently being compiled – each of which would benefit from an accelerated permitting process: with a cap of 27 months for a mining project and just 15 for processing or recycling projects. This is a mammoth task for some states who already struggle with the lack of capacity and expertise, yet if they don’t complete the process by the deadline, the project will be automatically approved.

This narrow and unforgiving permitting process was agreed in the context that it would be complimented by the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD), which would have meant that companies hailing from the EU would have to ‘identify, assess, prevent, mitigate, bring to an end and remedy their adverse impacts and those of their upstream and downstream partners’ in terms of human rights and the environment. However, after a four year legislative process and despite previous agreement, Member States, led by Germany and France, have jumped ship before completion. Without this protection the CRMA is an even more dangerous piece of legislation.

The CRMA now applies to all Member States. The only possible wedge at this stage is that if a Strategic Project falls within its borders, the State has to give its approval. Given that Ireland, both North and South, have consistently been in the top 5 most attractive states in the world to the mining industry, this small opening holds little hope.

Hope in Action

Where hope does lie is in the resistance and solidarity that is flourishing across our island, and across the globe. The all Ireland network – Communities Against the Injustice of Mining (CAIM) builds solidarity between communities – from fighting lithium mining in Wicklow, organising against the expansion of Europe’s biggest zinc mine near Navan, resisting the gold-come-copper ‘mine camp’ in the Sperrins, and other struggles from Donegal to Leitrim to Clare. CAIM is also a member of the global network Yes to Life No to Mining where trans-local solidarity means that histories, strategies and support are exchanged, and used to enhance local resistances and global narrative shifts.

What’s more, grassroots climate movements are also seeing through the greenwashing and false solutions. In Ireland the anti-capitalist climate activist group Sli Eile has been organising the yearly Climate Camp; last year they partnered with communities resisting the extractive industries in Leitrim to host the camp there. It is essential that climate activism acknowledges and supports frontline resistances against extractivism. It’s also necessary that common visions are created and brought to life – visions where no-one is othered and peripheries aren’t sacrificed.

CAIM gather in solidarity with Drumgossatt/Knocknacran Residents Group, Monaghan resisting the expansion of San Gobain’s gypsum mine

Image: CAIM

This article was first published in Rundale