Material World – Pillaged and plundered for green capitalism
COP27 in Egypt is done and dusted, promises doomed to be disappointments much to the dismay of the eternal optimists in the ecology movement. However, there are deeper problems for those who seek a new sustainable future of renewable energy.
Many have yet to come to understand that for new technologies to act as substitutes for fossil fuel, lithium, cobalt and other rare metals and minerals that you have never heard of are required. Transitioning to clean energy will lead to a huge expansion in mining for them. The World Bank estimates an additional 3 billion tons of minerals and metals will be needed for wind, solar and geothermal power generation and energy storage.
‘Lithium and rare earths are already replacing gas and oil at the heart of our economy… So we have to avoid falling into the same dependency as with oil and gas’, explained European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen (bit.ly/3Ulz1i5).
On 14 September, she announced the European Critical Raw Materials Act, aimed at securing a sustainable supply of critical raw materials for Europe to lessen its dependency on other suppliers
With just five countries controlling 90 percent of world lithium production, the International Energy Agency calls it a ‘quasi-monopoly’ situation.
Since 2015, production volumes of lithium, known as ‘white gold’, have tripled worldwide, reaching 100,000 tonnes per year in 2021, and expected to increase sevenfold by 2030. At the European level, about 35 times more lithium will be needed in 2050 than today. A single electric vehicle battery requires 63 kilograms of lithium carbonate, so 16 vehicles need just over a metric ton.
Olivier Vidal, a geologist and director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) said ‘This will certainly create tensions in the coming years, with expected increases in costs and, possibly, supply difficulties. So, there is a real strategic and sovereignty issue for states’ (bit.ly/3sSjGtI).
Mining projects often face public protest. Lithium extraction ‘produces considerable volumes of waste that must then be stored. The waste can also lead to water or air pollution,’ explained Vidal. Today, this pollution already exists, but in other countries, far from our eyes.
Cobalt’s use in electronic semiconductors, circuits and lithium-ion rechargeable batteries makes it critical to the global economy and ‘green’ technology. Besides renewable energy storage, cobalt is used in powerful magnets found in wind turbines and as an additive to improve biogas production.
Whereas a phone contains just thousandths of a gram of cobalt, an electric vehicle battery has pounds of the metal. Tesla’s ambition to produce 20 million electric vehicles a year in 2030 will require two times the present global annual supply.
The Congo is referred to as ‘the Saudi Arabia of cobalt’ as it supplies almost three quarters of the world’s cobalt from often hazardous, and exploitative working conditions akin to modern slavery, involving forced labour, debt bondage, human trafficking and child labour.
Those who promote renewable energy technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines and electric batteries risk damaging ecosystems and harming local communities in the extraction of raw materials. Hopes of a low-carbon economy may well replicate the destruction of the environment caused by the fossil-fuel industry. The threat of resource wars does not disappear. It has already been suggested that the 2019 coup overthrowing Bolivia’s former president, Evo Morales, was motivated by competition between countries for its lithium supplies.
Do these problems lead to the conclusion that socialism will fail to be sustainable? An alternative, described as ‘green lithium’ exists. Unlike extraction from rocks or salt deserts, which function like traditional mines, ‘green lithium is produced from geothermal sources, with an extraction method similar to that of a well. However, the technique presently remains too expensive to be considered at a commercial level(bbc.in/3SRSAND).
Also, since lithium batteries are a relatively new development, recycling is not keeping pace yet. But by 2035, electric vehicle batteries will be coming to the end of their life and therefore will be recycled. According to the studies, 40 to 75 percent of the EU’s lithium needs could be met through recycling by 2050 reducing environmental damage.
All this means that rivalry between capitalists and countries for control of the source and deposits of those elements will continue unabated. Mining corporations will carry on looting the land, with the customary civil strife and proxy wars taking place. Our message to those aspiring to a new green future is that nothing changes if the system doesn’t change, too.