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The International Energy Agency sends a mixed message in its recent reports, urging that we leave fossil fuels in the ground while simultaneously calling for more extraction of metals used in low-carbon technologies. This extractivist push is both problematic and unnecessary: the world can achieve a clean energy transition without the kind of human rights catastrophes and environmental devastation that the mining industry currently considers acceptable. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has released two important reports in the past month. The first, Net Zero by 2050, notes that “there is no need for new investment in fossil fuel supply,” a conclusion that many in the climate movement, including Earthworks, have applauded. The second, The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions, undermines the “keep it in the ground” message of the first report by calling for more extraction in the form of metals mining. 

With the ever-increasing damage and injustices exacerbated by the climate crisis, the renewable energy transition is more urgent than ever. Demand for the “transition” minerals used in renewable energy technologies is in turn projected to increase sharply: according to the IEA, to meet the Paris Agreement goals, demand will rise (over the next 20 years) by more than 40% for copper and rare earth elements (REEs), 60-70% for nickel and cobalt, and more than 89% for lithium. Lithium-ion batteries need lithium, nickel, and cobalt (among other elements), wind turbines use REEs, and copper is used in all electricity-based technologies, due to its high rate of conductivity. 

These aren’t new projections: our own 2019 publication on this issue based on research by the University of Technology, Sydney, pointed to similar trendlines.

This steep upward trajectory in minerals demand could be devastating for communities and ecosystems in the regions where these minerals are extracted. Hardrock mining has a long, terrible history as a tool of colonization and imperialism; in the United States alone, mining has accompanied and driven western settlement, which killed untold numbers of Indigenous Peoples, breaking multiple treaties with Indigenous Peoples, contaminating more than 40% of western watersheds’ headwaters, and directly causing the deaths of many members of mining-affected communities from cancer. Mining is the country’s leading industrial toxic polluter, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, according to the UN Environment Programme.  

But the social and environmental harm brought on by mining is not a thing of the past:

  • in the Olaroz salt flat in Argentina, Indigenous Peoples “that own the land struggle to pay for sewage systems, drinking water and heat for schools” even as Minera Exar anticipates making $250 million per year by mining lithium;
  • in Australia, Rio Tinto blew up the Juukan Gorge, which is sacred to the Puutu Kunti Kuurama and Pinikura peoples and which had evidence of continuous habitation for more than 46,000 years, in pursuit of iron ore.

There are hundreds of stories just like these, some of them which are detailed in our recent report, Recharge Responsibly, happening all over the world—and this environmental injustice will continue apace if recycling and reuse, alongside other demand reduction strategies and more responsible primary sourcing, are not prioritized as part of a clean energy transition.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and here are three reasons why: 

  1. The IEA itself highlights that “recycling relieves the pressure on primary supply,” and that recycled copper, lithium, nickel, and cobalt from spent batteries could reduce combined primary supply requirements by approximately 10% by 2040; 
  2. Research that Earthworks recently published, prepared by the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, shows much more optimistic results of 25-55% potential demand reduction through increased recycling of nickel, cobalt, lithium, and copper from EV batteries alone; 
  3. Recycling has the potential to be a major source of jobs, as EV and other batteries capable of being recycled increase in production. This job can and must be done with the strictest labor and safety laws.

Other strategies, such as public and collective transportation solutions, have significant potential to reduce demand for metals used in electric vehicle batteries. It’s not enough to move from one type of “take-make-waste” extraction-based linear economy; to comprehensively address the climate crisis the world writ large (but especially wealthy and/or Western countries) must commit to fundamentally reshaping our approach to consumption. Specifically, this means moving towards what the UK-based NGO War on Want calls a circular economy, not just for minerals but for all resources and goods, and eventually a circular society, “in which not only waste is minimised, but consumption itself is questioned.” We must no longer assume the planet can handle infinite growth and production.

The IEA report acknowledges the need for more responsible primary sourcing but does a poor job of explaining what this looks like. The Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA)’s Standard for Responsible Mining offers the necessary detail, rigor, and ambition in defining responsible mining. These thorough and detailed standards, developed in cooperation with mining-affected communities and labor unions, must become part of binding regulatory frameworks. Regrettably, the IEA fails to adequately distinguish between industry-led self-certification schemes, which do little more than window-dressing, and rigorous standards such as IRMA. If the IEA, government bodies, or the mining industry itself actually want to advance a more equitable type of mining, these schemes cannot be voluntary and must insist on holding operators responsible for the harm and damage they cause.

The climate crisis is unlike any challenge ever faced, and transitioning to clean energy is a necessary part of the solution. However, simply swapping out existing sacrifice zones in oil patches and gas fields for more mines is simply not an option. With demand reductions, circular economy solutions and independent, verifiable criteria for more responsible mining, we can accelerate a more enduring transition to a low-carbon future.