Clean energy dream fuels a dirty mineral rush
Clean energy dream fuels a dirty mineral rush
August 19, 2019
A future of environment-friendly energy, where dirty engines and power plants rust in history’s scrapyard, is an idyllic vision. In the cynical real world, the rush for green batteries is fueling a harmful mining boom
By 2030, there will be 140 million electric cars on Earth, and by 2040 every third vehicle will be powered by green electricity instead of the fossil fuels that have been slowly choking the environment for the past couple centuries. That’s according to assessments by Glencore Plc and Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Sounds like we’re on the right track and Greta Thunberg’s zero-emission dream could be achieved within her lifetime. Humanity is finally coming to its senses.
Not quite. All those cars will need batteries, and all those batteries will need to be built with a small periodic table of minerals. And all those minerals need to be mined – in some cases strip-mining the rest of the planet’s explored deposits.
The rush is already on. The world’s top mining corporations are starting to carve up the growing market for lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper, platinum and palladium – all key materials in making electric vehicle (EV) batteries
The rush is already on. The world’s top mining corporations are starting to carve up the growing market for lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper, platinum and palladium – all key materials in making electric vehicle (EV) batteries.
And they will have to start digging if they want to keep up. It’s estimated that three million more tons of copper will have to be mined per year to feed the production of 140 million EVs by 2030 – and that’s copper, the most recycled metal on earth. Nickel mining will have to increase by 1.3 million tons per year, and cobalt by 263,000 tons.
Those are just batteries. Electric cars also need engines, and solar and wind generators – without which a green future is unimaginable – will also gobble-up those materials, including more obscure ones such as tellurium and neodymium.
Demand is set to exceed supply – which is why those mining giants are rushing to increase theirs (and make a good buck along the way). In some cases, demand will exceed the supply offered by the planet – at least the feasibly-minable reserves we have discovered so far
Demand is set to exceed supply – which is why those mining giants are rushing to increase theirs (and make a good buck along the way). In some cases, demand will exceed the supply offered by the planet – at least the feasibly-minable reserves we have discovered so far.
Lithium, the mineral central to building modern batteries, is extracted from salt via giant evaporation ponds. The process is cost-effective but uses up enormous amounts of water. In parts of South America’s ‘lithium triangle’, farmers have to bring water in from elsewhere, while the local groundwaters are being pumped up to the surface and left to evaporate and leave behind lithium-rich salt.
Meanwhile in Tibet, there were cases when toxic chemicals used in refining lithium leaked into a river, causing massive wildlife die-offs. That mine even got shuttered in 2013 although it was reopened three years later.
Copper mines have caused devastating wastewater spills, such as the one that turned Sonora and Bacanuchi rivers in Mexico a rusty orange in August 2014, causing serious health problems in hundreds of locals.
Artisanal cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where most of the mineral comes from, kicks up clouds of toxic mineral dust, whose effects are exacerbated with a lack of regulation, combined with reported human rights abuses – including child labor – at the mines
Artisanal cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where most of the mineral comes from, kicks up clouds of toxic mineral dust, whose effects are exacerbated with a lack of regulation, combined with reported human rights abuses – including child labor – at the mines.
Nothing is fully renewable yet
One big problem with going renewable all the way is that humans have not yet discovered a way to make any energy technology 100% renewable. Batteries we can currently make have a lifespan – a modern lithium battery, drained and recharged over and over, only maintains enough capacity to run an electric car for about 10 years (granted, it can then theoretically be repurposed for something less demanding).
And those rare earth reserves are not infinite, says Dr Parakram Pyakurel, postdoctoral researcher at the Warsash School of Maritime Science and Engineering. “While there is no hard limit (energy efficiency technology, discovery of new reserves, etc, will stretch the limit), rare metals/minerals like cobalt, lithium, etc, are non-renewable and will eventually run out,” he told RT News in an email.
Reusing and recycling batteries and other equipment can go a long way to offsetting the growing demand for rare earth minerals – but for humanity to ascend into a renewable future, implementing that cycle on a meaningful scale will require tremendous effort. Common standards for batteries would need to be worked out. Recycling would need to be stepped up dramatically – currently only about 5% prcent of all Li-ionbatteries are being recycled in the USA and Europe. Even so, it is technically impossible to recycle 100% of the lithium used in a battery.
And while environmentalists and energy researchers wrestle with this conundrum, mining corporations are defaulting to what they do best: more digging.
An acceptable trade-off?
In the end, even if the corporations only understand demand and profit, all that harmful mining is supposed to contribute to a brighter, wind- and sun-powered, zero-emission future. So maybe the trade-off of harming the environment now is worth it, and Earth will heal itself once we’ve gone green?
The problem is that the green future is still a vague, if beautiful, spectre on the horizon – while the drill-scarred and salt-parched earth and polluted rivers are already a reality – one that will likely get worse as we feed the mineral-hungry renewables
The problem is that the green future is still a vague, if beautiful, spectre on the horizon – while the drill-scarred and salt-parched earth and polluted rivers are already a reality – one that will likely get worse as we feed the mineral-hungry renewables.
It is possible to make mineral extraction green, to an extent – with wastewater recycling, gas capturing, soil reclamation, biomining – “but this requires stringent government regulation and will also increase mining cost”, Pyakurel said. And increased costs mean less profit for mining giants.
The bottom line is, while switching to an electric car sounds like an obvious step to going green, their hidden costs mean they are not as clean as advertised.
“It is noteworthy that when automobiles first arrived, they were marketed as ‘clean’ because there would be no more horse manure to deal from horse carriages. The same is likely to happen with renewable energy and EVs!”, said Dr Pyakurel.
Lithium-ion batteries hold the key to a future powered by clean energy. By enabling electric cars, ships, and planes, this versatile energy-storage medium is bound to help cut pollutants and greenhouse gases.
But all that progress will come at a cost. Battery manufacturing requires large amounts of metals, some of which, like copper and aluminum, are plentiful and easy to mine. The rarer materials such as cobalt and lithium, though, often come from places rife with war and child labor.
About 70% of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and a 2016 Amnesty report found there is little doubt that at least 20% of the country’s cobalt supply involves the exploitation of children. Much of it ends up in China, where it’s packaged into batteries for smartphones, drones and, increasingly, electric vehicles.
While China has formal guidelines to meet international standards for responsible mineral sourcing, according to Andy Leyland of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, it’s still “very difficult” to audit whether a batch of cobalt may or may not contain metals from unethical mines. But things on that front might soon change, as Europe positions itself to become a major battery manufacturing hub.
Europe’s push on electric cars is forcing car-makers to lock down a consistent, local supply of batteries. The commitments are coming in the form of billions of euros in investment. That’s attracting large battery companies to the region – all of which need to secure their own metals supply chain.
And European car-makers are committed to cleaning up that supply, says Leyland. That isn’t just because Europe has stronger regulations, but because European customers expect higher standards.
Some of these European battery manufacturing plants, including the largest one planned by CATL, are likely to be built by the same Chinese battery companies that have trouble auditing their metals in their home country
Some of these European battery manufacturing plants, including the largest one planned by CATL, are likely to be built by the same Chinese battery companies that have trouble auditing their metals in their home country. Leyland expects that, once in Europe, these companies will follow the better practices demanded on the continent.
A report on the geopolitics of electric vehicles by E3G, an environmental think tank, recommends that the EU should work with countries like the DRC to pass laws governing metals mining and start fixing the underlying poverty and corruption that lead to forced employment of children. If European car-makers only buy ethical metals, it will provide the economic incentive to push countries in the right direction.
Europe is also likely to accelerate the efforts to recycle lithium-ion batteries. The continent’s strict regulations on collection and recycling of lead-acid and nickel-cadmium batteries could serve as a blueprint, even if the technology needed to recover the materials inside lithium-ion batteries is likely to be different.
Increased recycling will mean that used batteries don’t end up polluting the environment. The bigger win will be cutting the need for the extraction of virgin metals. The demand for metals needed in batteries is expected to grow between 500% and 1000% in the next decade.
(This article first appeared on the RT News website and is republished with kind permission.)
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