Rethinking the new minerals boom

Yes to Life No to Mining partners from London Mining Network and War on Want have released a report exploring supply and demand solutions for renewable energy minerals




DOWNLOAD: A Material Transition: Exploring supply and demand solutions for renewable energy minerals

Andrew Whitmore for  Financial Times

The mining industry is currently alight with talk of a new commodity “supercycle”.

The last one coincided with China’s rapid industrialization growth spurt, and whether it is a supercycle or not, a major boom looks likely because of infrastructure-led spending to speed recovery from the pandemic coupled with the energy transition. Indeed, the talk of Green New Deals seeks to wed this energy transformation with that economic stimulus.

Mining companies, and their investors, are obviously enthusiastic about such an expansion. Mining entrepreneur Robert Friedland gloated that “if we get a Green New Deal where bankers just hit the zero keys. . . it would make our day ”.

However, miners are also taking advantage of their role supplying metals to renewables, batteries and electrical infrastructure to create a new green narrative for mining – the “black-to-green revolution”.

In this new world, mining companies are the climate heroes saving the world, although it also conveniently downplays overall demand for critical metal end-uses, in the likes of construction, aviation, electronics and the arms industry. For example, even in the highest demand scenarios, under no circumstances will the renewable energy sector consume the majority of the annual production of copper.

The new demand supporting the energy transition does not change the act of mining. Extracting minerals, such as lithium, cobalt or copper, is still a dirty business with significant environmental and human impact. This new boom threatens to open new extractive frontiers, in the global south but also in North America and Europe. There is an urgent need to deal with the potential widespread destruction and human rights abuses that could be unleashed. 

Although it is crucial to tackle the climate crisis, and rapidly transition away from fossil fuels, this cannot be achieved by just expanding our reliance on other materials. The energy crisis is fundamentally a resource-usage crisis.

Our use of natural resources has more than tripled since 1970 and is on a continued growth path. According to the International Resource Panel , 90 per cent of biodiversity loss and water stress are caused by resource extraction and processing and these same activities contribute to about half of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

A new War on Want report, called “A Material Transition” , seeks to explore these dilemmas. It looks first to those communities affected by the resource extraction. The concept of a “just transition”, currently applied to energy use, must be extended to those who would otherwise inhabit “sacrifice zones”. 

On the supply side, the focus on supply-chain due diligence brings hope that investors and the end users of transition minerals – such as electric vehicle manufacturers – will be able to eradicate human rights abuses from their supply chains.

An example is an addition of mandatory human rights due diligence in the proposed EU regulation on batteries. Civil society and affected communities can work directly with suppliers and manufacturers to ensure the effectiveness and legitimacy of key initiatives. 

On the demand side, there are a number of practical solutions that should be initiated or accelerated to enable better-informed choices about our energy and consumption and to reduce the need for new resource extraction. However, it is not enough to switch to green growth, such as simply increasing the production of new electric vehicles.

Recently the European Parliament has demanded the first-ever EU targets to reduce overconsumption . MEPs have voted to push for legally binding targets to reduce resource use by 2030 and bring EU consumption within planetary boundaries by 2050. Such thinking is necessary to moderate any new minerals boom.

As Sir Partha Dasgupta notes in his government review on biodiversity, we need to change our production and consumption patterns. The human economy is bounded, and it would be entirely counterproductive to seek growth that damages nature.

Andy Whitmore is author of the War on Want ‘A Material Transition’ report and co-chair of the London Mining Network


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