Nothing in life is free and the transition to renewable energy and electric vehicles comes with human and environmental costs.
A new report from Friends of the Earth Scotland called ‘Unearthing injustice’ looks at the human rights abuses and environmental destruction currently caused by mining for the minerals we need to make the energy transition away from fossil fuels.
The report singles out two critical materials for special scrutiny – steel and lithium. Steel is needed for instance for wind turbine towers and lithium is the essential component of the batteries which run electric vehicles. As we transition away from depending on fossil fuels, we will need more and more of these and other materials. The global demand for lithium could increase by as much as fifty times over the next twenty years. Currently only a tiny fraction is recycled.
Mining of any sort usually creates conflict with local communities, uses lots of energy and produces lots of waste, often toxic waste. Mining and refining a pure mineral will usually produce something like ten times more waste than the actual material being produced.
In some countries worker safely and environmental laws are lax or ignored, and local communities have little or no say over processes which impact them.
The report found that steel used in Scotland is likely to contain iron ore from Brazil, where poor practices have led to two major waste dam failures, with hundreds killed.
The report also found that most of the lithium in products in Scotland comes from Chile or Australia, and much future demand may be met by further developments in a hugely lithium-rich area in the Andes split between Argentina, Bolivia and Chile.
The fight against climate change is one we cannot afford to lose and renewable energy is a huge part of the solution. But in the transition from here to there we need to reduce the need for critical minerals as much as possible and, for those we must use, make sure we are buying from the lowest-impact sources possible.
One solution is of course to get much better at recycling what we already use. Steel recycling is currently a high-carbon activity, using plenty of fossil fuel. But recycling steel could be done using electric arc furnaces powered by renewable electricity. Scotland has a unique opportunity to create a greener steel industry with plentiful supplies of renewable electricity and large quantities of scrap steel for recycling over the next decade from the oil industry. Just up to 2027 the industry expects to decommission nearly 1,500 wells and 74 drilling platforms, creating nearly 1 million tonnes of material for recycling, most of it steel.
Transport policies which reduce the number of cars on our roads in future would reduce demand for lithium and recycling lithium needs to be a high priority.
The oil and gas industry has been responsible for plenty of environmental disasters, has been accused of human rights abuses and of course continue to drive climate change. We must make sure we do not make some of the same mistakes again as we transition away from fossil fuels on our way to cutting our climate emissions to zero.
A version of this article appeared in the Scotsman newspaper on 7th June 2023.