Much Ado About Mining
This article is part of a larger feature on how land use battles are hindering the clean energy transition.
A critical land use dimension of the clean energy transition is the mining of metals used for batteries for electric vehicles and general power storage, including lithium, cobalt, copper, nickel, niobium, and graphite. The World Bank estimates that over 3 billion tons of minerals and metals will be needed by 2050 to meet the clean energy storage and deployment goals in the 2015 Paris Agreement—a production increase of 500 percent.
With these minerals in such high demand, regions like Latin America, which controls two-thirds of the global supply of lithium, are under tremendous pressure to allow mining as a new source of economic development. But the mining process is dangerous, hugely disruptive to the environment, and often occurs within Indigenous territories.
The resource-rich countries where the minerals are, primarily in the Global South, are home to extensive biodiversity and uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, said Claudia Dobles Camargo, former First Lady of Costa Rica, where open-air mining is banned. “We cannot just transition from one type of energy to clean energy without taking into consideration that this could become a new extractivism,” she said. Honduras and El Salvador have also banned the practice.
Beyond the developing world, any move to extract these clean-power minerals seems to become instantaneously contentious. When a Maine couple discovered large lithium deposits on their property, they were surprised that neighbors didn’t celebrate the potential contribution to the clean energy transition—but rather demanded state regulators prevent any kind of mining operation at all.
Technology may come to the rescue, in the form of more sustainable lithium mining techniques involving microbes, seawater, and brine. Lithium can also be recycled from old batteries, a process dubbed “urban mining.” And researchers at MIT and elsewhere are working on new kinds of batteries, such as metal-air devices using aluminum, zinc, or iron, all of which are abundantly available, that would obviate the need for lithium altogether.
Another approach to minimize damage and land use conflicts: reduce demand for batteries for electric vehicles by driving less—a higher bar, to be sure, for societies just getting used to the concept of alternatives to fossil fuel.
A report by a team led by Providence College Professor Thea Riofrancos found that the United States “can achieve zero emissions transportation while limiting the amount of lithium mining necessary by reducing the car dependence of the transportation system, decreasing the size of electric vehicle batteries, and maximizing lithium recycling.”
“Reordering the US transportation system through policy and spending shifts to prioritize public and active transit while reducing car dependency,” the report says, “can also ensure transit equity, protect ecosystems, respect Indigenous rights, and meet the demands of global justice.”
Anthony Flint is a senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, host of the Land Matters podcast, and a contributing editor of Land Lines.
Lead image: Silver Peak lithium mine, Nevada. Credit: simonkr via E+/Getty Images.