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Is clean energy really clean? Sustainable Mining, Climate-Smart Mining - an Intrinsic Contradiction
Br. Rodrigo de Castro Amédée Péret, ofm

In today's world we are in the midst of a series of crises that interact in a synergistic way. This unprecedented synergy involves crises in all spheres—political, economic, social, and environmental, just to mention a few. In the Encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis talks about Integral Ecology and draws attention to the fact that everything is interconnected.

The most vulnerable to crises are the poor, children, female-headed households, women, people with disabilities, indigenous people, ethnic minorities, landless, migrants, LGBTQIA+ people, the elderly and other marginalized groups.

In the midst of this synergy of crises is the climate crisis. The threat posed by climate change requires changes in our ways of life. A major challenge lies in the so-called energy transition. The need for a low-carbon future is critical. And every day we hear more about what has come to be called “clean energy”. But are these energies really clean?

The extraction and processing of minerals for the production of solar panels, wind turbines and batteries, for example, causes significant social and environmental impacts, so the concept of “clean energy” must be considered a contradiction. The demand for minerals will only increase, according to the report Minerals for Climate Action: The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition, issued by the World Bank in May 2020, “large relative increases in demand of up to nearly 500 percent are estimated for certain minerals, especially those concentrated in energy storage technologies, such as lithium, graphite, and cobalt”. This report also shows to achieve a future below 2°C, “solar PV will account for the majority of aluminum demand from energy technologies (87 percent), while wind and geothermal will account for most zinc and titanium demand, at 98 percent and 64 percent, respectively. Solar PV and wind, combined, account for 74.2 percent of all copper demand, while battery storage accounts for all graphite and lithium demand in this analysis”.

In fact, the proposed solution for a low-carbon future limits the debate on the climate crisis to a simple replacement of energy sources. It places the mining sector at the tip of the solution. For this was created a new narrative such as “Climate-Smart Mining”. The World Bank has launched the Climate-Smart Mining Initiative to ensure that minerals for the clean energy transition are produced and supplied sustainably and responsibly. For Riccardo Puliti, Global Director, Energy and Extractive Industries at the World Bank, the idea is to “make the clean energy transition possible without endangering the climate and the environment. By working together to reduce the carbon and material footprints of minerals, we can support the large-scale deployment of renewable energy and battery storage technologies required to meet ambitious climate targets and achieve a low-carbon future that benefits everyone”.

Mining sector insist on the myths of “green”, “sustainable” and now “climate-smart” mining. It is a strategy through a play on words to describe mining, giving it a quality to make it more attractive to investors and public opinion. However, mining always entails violence and human rights violations, environmental and ecological sacrifices, conflicts with and within affected communities, exploitation of labor and deepening socio-economic inequalities.

Commodities for new technological applications, such as some minerals and rare earths, have gained the status of strategic assets in the industrial and economic development plans of companies and states. Potential disruptions of these commodities in the supply chain are defined as critical to a nation's economy and security. These mineral commodities came to be classified as critical minerals. In this sense, the concept of criticality of these mining commodities is very dynamic, depending on its geological scarcity, geopolitical issues, country instabilities, trade policies, market circles, high investment costs, consumerism demand are among other factors.

For instance, in the case of Europe, large part of the deposits and extraction of this so-called critical materials are placed outside the European Union (EU). On the other hand, there are a significant number of known deposits of these materials within the EU. European Commission aware of demand outlooks and supply vulnerabilities released Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials , with a new list of Critical Raw Materials (2020), showing that now 30 materials are critical, a growing number compared to the 14 critical materials, listed in 2011, 20 materials in 2014 and 27 listed in 2017. All of them are important for EU economy

Presented in September 3, 2020, the EU Commission Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials, which changes its raw materials policy. The plan focuses directly on the commons, or so-called natural resources, such as minerals. It encourages the implementation of mining projects in countries in Europe and the Global South. Presented as a response to the climate crisis, it wants to secure raw materials. This is to meet the demand for new technologies, said to be sustainable, necessary for the European Union (EU) to make its green and digital transitions. By September 30, the EC looking to its economic interests, launched an industrial alliance. The aim of the alliance is to give "strategic autonomy" to so-called critical raw materials, such as rare earths.

The attack of extractive activities on common goods continues to accelerate the process of looting the populations in their territories and causing great depredation of the planet's life system.

To better understand the issue of mining unsustainability, it is important to understand it within the framework of the extractive economy. Extractivism is a mode of capital accumulation based on the deep destructive and private exploitation of common goods, These common goods are usually called as natural resource, from a utilitarian and economic interest perspective. Extractivism relays on unsustainable modes of consumption with ever increasing demand for goods.

In the case of mining, the State and the private business sector complement and strengthen each other. In addition, international financial institutions and banks are involved in financing and fostering technology, industry, logistics, markets, etc. Mining involves different legal instruments in the processes of granting mining licenses, appropriation of land, water, environment and transfer of property rights as local populations are expropriated. In Brazil, for instance, this relationship is under the hegemony of the mining sector, which captures and submits the State to its interests. The result is a political architecture in which state institutions and legislation serve to shape outcomes for the benefit of the mining sector.

Major extractive activities are often carried out without consultation and consent from affected communities. Large-scale extraction destroys previously existing ways of life and production in the territories, leaving people deprived of land and water, as well as their livelihoods. It is an economic sector that is based on unsustainable modes of consumption with increasing demand for common goods.

The reality of mining reveals that violence is a necessary condition. Mining companies are responsible for enormous human and ecological sacrifices on every continent. The mining sector violates human rights, induces and stimulates conflicts in affected communities, exploits mine workers, deepens socioeconomic inequalities, as well as extracts wealth and leaves a liability for destruction, contamination and negative impacts on territories. Paradoxically, many areas rich in minerals and metals are also extremely poor.

The mining sector always disregards the populations of the territories they are exploring, puts their lives at risk, acts in a criminal way towards people and the environment. Living in permanent risk is what the reality of mining reveals to us.

If, on the one hand, in the territories, livelihoods are a source of livelihood, income, identity and culture, these livelihoods are being threatened not only in the extraction itself, but by an entire business chain linked to mining. This business chain starts in the mine area itself, with the mining processes carried out on site, and extends spatially through a huge infrastructure. Different forms of transport, such as highways, railways, pipelines, as well as ports, logistics terminals, industrial plants (steel and petrochemical plants), hydroelectric plants and water harvesting works. Energy and water are critical to mining operations. The impacts of mining deconstruct territories and territorialities, far beyond the mines.

Faced with this reality, it is difficult to convince, that we are in a transition to clean energies. International financial institutions, large corporations and investment banks have financialized nature

The low carbon future being proposed based on more mining will lead to more extraction. When we look at the distribution of these minerals around the world, we see that they are mainly located in low- and middle-income countries. For example, it is in these regions that 93% of rare earth reserves are found, 83% of manganese, 69% of cobalt and 66% of bauxite. And it will be in these countries that the impacts and conflicts will be concentrated.

The new levels of extraction of some minerals and metals and the speed with which such projects will be implemented tend to significantly increase the number and intensity of territorial conflicts. In the so-called lithium triangle, formed by the salt flats of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, extraction has already generated water scarcity .

Talking about energy transition without questioning the intensity of global energy consumption, especially in rich countries, is a false solution. Studies indicate that, considering the horizon of 2050, if we simply maintain the same pattern of energy consumption and only replace energy sources, there will not be enough reserves of cobalt, lithium or nickel to meet the demand. Assessments of the current and potential extraction of critical minerals in the Global South indicates a series of ongoing conflicts and the likely growth of disputes over water, impacts as deforestation, pressure on Indigenous Lands, conflicts in various territories.

In Brazil, mining conflicts teach that life in the territories must be taken into account. In particular, the socio-environmental bias against the advance of mining highlights the territory as a space of resistance and also as a place of resignification and creation of new social, economic and environmental relationships. Thus, social movements, communities affected by mining, struggle to establish criteria that define “Territories Free from Mining” . considering four issues:

  • To question the unequal control over common goods and the environmental injustice that structures mineral expansion
  • To defend and propose true solutions that preserve biodiversity and generate social and economic benefits, directly or indirectly, for the whole of society.
  • To exercise a political practice of autonomy and solidarity
  • To demand a just transition and full restitution for violations and socio-environmental impacts. Hold corporations and governments accountable for crimes against people and the environment. Paying fine is not enough.
  • An urgent struggle is to guarantee the direct intervention of organized society in order to fight to establish the “Right to Say No”.

European Commission. Study on the EU’s List of Critical Raw Materials Final Report 2020; European Comission: Brussels, Belgium, 2020.


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