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Challenges in Critical Mineral Extraction for Green Transition: Navigating Bottlenecks


A lithium mine at Salinas Grandes in Jujuy Province, Argentina. Shutterstock

A lithium mine at Salinas Grandes in Jujuy Province, Argentina. Shutterstock


The global shift towards a sustainable, low-carbon future relies on the green transition, a shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy across all industries and sectors. From the outset, this transition encounters significant problems and bottlenecks - here, we focus specifically on extracting critical minerals essential for the renewable energy technologies that will power the green economy. Minerals such as lithium, cobalt, copper, and nickel are indispensable for their technological applications in the renewables sector; however, the socio-environmental caveats their extraction entails cannot be overlooked for the ‘greater good’. According to an exclusive article published in The Guardian, The United Nations predicts a 60% increase in the extraction of these raw materials by 2060. This implies a critical and emergent need for developing and implementing sustainable and equitable extraction practices (Neslen, 2024).


Building Blocks of a Greener Future


The transition to a sustainable energy system hinges on four critical raw materials: lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper. Each plays a unique and irreplaceable role in renewable energy technologies and electric vehicles (EVs), making their extraction a key starting point for the green transition.


Cobalt enhances the energy density and longevity of lithium-ion batteries and is crucial for the stability and safety of these batteries. Its application, therefore, extends to electric vehicles (EVs) and energy storage systems, supporting the shift away from fossil fuels.


Lithium, as the name suggests, makes the lithium-ion batteries that power EVs and store renewable energy. According to the World Economic Forum, demand for lithium is expected to increase a staggering 18-fold by 2030.


Copper and nickel are also essential components for renewable energy infrastructure and high-density battery formulations. Rising demand in recent years indicates these materials' role in the green transition, necessitating sustainable mining practices to mitigate environmental impacts (Carley & Konisky).


Addressing Injustices in the Mining Industry


The mining sector, specifically in the contexts of cobalt and lithium extraction, has garnered significant attention from human rights groups for the environmental harm and social inequities associated with these activities.


Miners are carrying sacks in the Shabara mine, Kolwezi, Democratic Republic of Congo

Miners are carrying sacks in the Shabara mine, Kolwezi, Democratic Republic of Congo. Creator: Junior Kannah, 2016 | Getty Images


Cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a glaring example of the human rights violations inherent in raw material extraction for green technologies. Amnesty International's "Powering Change or Business as Usual?" report, in collaboration with the DRC-based Initiative, pour la Bonne Gouvernance et les Droits Humains (IBGDH), documents forced evictions, child labour, physical - even sexual - violence, and exploitation in cobalt and copper mining operations. These projects have led to community displacement, inadequate compensation, and a stark decline in living standards for affected residents. Notably, the expansion of mining operations in Kolwezi has resulted in forced evictions without adequate consultation or fair compensation, pushing residents out into accommodations that lack basic amenities and fundamentally altering their way of life (Amnesty International, 2023; Boyle, 2023).


In addition to cobalt, lithium mining in South America's "Lithium Triangle" (Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile) has raised concerns over water usage and its impact on Indigenous communities and ecosystems. Lithium extraction from the liquid brines in Salar de Atacama, Chile, illustrates the environmental toll and water injustices associated with extracting green raw materials.


Lithium mine in Salar de Atacama, Chile

Lithium mine in Salar de Atacama, Chile. Creator: John Moore, 2022 | Getty Images


Unsustainable extraction processes in the region have seriously jeopardised fragile ecosystems and exacerbated water scarcity. Indigenous communities have witnessed mining activities impacting water availability and quality, adversely affecting their livelihoods and cultural practices. This situation is emblematic of the broader issue of green extractivism, where the environmental costs of decarbonisation are disproportionately carried by less economically developed regions, perpetuating a cycle of exploitation and environmental degradation (Jerez et al., 2021; Silva, 2023).


These cases highlight the urgent need for a just transition, prioritising equitable and sustainable economic shifts that do not leave anyone behind. Addressing the injustices in the mining industry requires a comprehensive approach that respects human rights, safeguards environmental integrity, and ensures the recognition of affected communities, emphasising their participation and consent. International standards, corporate accountability, and a focus on environmental justice are imperative to change raw material extraction's current trajectory and focus it towards a truly sustainable and equitable green transition.


Sustainable practices for mining transition minerals


Environmental sustainability within the mining sector necessitates adopting advanced technologies and methods to minimise water and energy consumption, reduce the impact on land, and reduce pollution. Introducing closed-loop water management systems and utilising renewable energy sources at mining locations are some of the many strategies that can be employed to reduce extraction processes' environmental impact. Following this, the post-extraction rehabilitation and restoration of mining sites is non-negotiable for conserving biodiversity and enhancing ecosystem resilience.


On the social front, a just transition in mining is premised on protecting the rights and well-being of workers and the communities affected by extractive activities. This encompasses creating safe work environments, ensuring equitable compensation, and recognising and respecting indigenous peoples’ rights in their own territories. Community involvement and obtaining consent are also critical for fostering trust and ensuring mining initiatives support local development without inflicting harm.


Local governments of the mining sites often fall short in offering legal frameworks for protecting the local communities and environment. Therefore, the responsibility of conducting extractive operations with unwavering integrity significantly shifts towards businesses. Companies must lead by example, rigorously adhering to ethical standards and regulatory mandates beyond the minimal legal requirements. Some of the sustainable practices businesses can implement are strengthening internal ESG strategies, enhancing transparency within their supply chains, and steadfastly committing to responsible sourcing. By taking proactive steps to ensure their operations and supply chains are impeccably managed, businesses play an essential role in setting a higher standard of conduct, thereby preventing the exploitation and degradation of vulnerable countries for financial gain.


The movement towards equitable and sustainable mining practices extends beyond ethical duty, embodying a forward-thinking investment in ensuring that the historical injustices associated with extractive industries and their deep-seated links to colonialism are not perpetuated in the green economy. This paradigm shift presents an opportunity for businesses to rectify the legacy of corporate exploitation and feckless capitalism, instead placing unprecedented value on upholding their responsibility to people and the planet, forgoing ‘business as usual’ to find new pathways that align with the principles of fairness, inclusivity, and sustainability.


References:


  • Amnesty International. "Powering Change or Business as Usual?: Industrial Mining of Cobalt and Copper in the DRC Leads to Grievous Human Rights Abuses." 2022.

  • Vania Albarracín Silva. "'Water is Worth More Than Lithium': Resistance Against an Unjust Energy Transition in Jujuy, Argentina." AIDA, 2023.

  • Carley, Sanya, and David M. Konisky. "The justice and equity implications of the clean energy transition." Nature Energy, 2020.

  • Louise Boyle. "Democratic Republic of the Congo: Industrial mining of cobalt and copper for rechargeable batteries is leading to grievous human rights abuses." Indepentent, 2022.

  • Jerez, Barbara, Ingrid Garcés, and Robinson Torres. "Lithium Extractivism and Water Injustices in the Salar de Atacama, Chile: The Colonial Shadow of Green Electromobility." Political Geography, 2021.

  • Neslen, Arthur. "Extraction of raw materials to rise by 60% by 2060, says UN report." The Guardian, 31 Jan. 2024.

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