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Overconsumption of transition minerals will cost us the earth 

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Written by: Beverly Besmanos
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reading time 4 minutes

The world is scrambling for the critical minerals needed for the energy transition. Last week, at the OECD Minerals Forum(opens in new window) in Paris, representatives from government, business, and civil society discussed how to source them responsibly. But to avoid a repeat of past injustices and ensure a just energy transition, imposing strict sustainability requirements is not enough. Rich countries must curb their relentless consumption of critical minerals, argue Beverly Besmanos and Alejandro González.

The rich world is on a global scramble for the minerals that are crucial to ensuring our planet remains liveable. Wealthy countries already use six times more(opens in new window) natural resources per capita than low-income ones. 

This demand is set to explode as demand for electric vehicles gains momentum. The accompanying surge in mining will have such devastating social and environmental impacts across the globe that no responsible mining standard could match it.

Of course, the world’s largest economies need to take climate action and decarbonise as fast as possible. However, the current geopolitical competition between the EU, the US, and China risks perpetuating an already unequal system in which countries in the Global North reap the economic benefits while producing countries in the Global South bear the environmental and social costs. 

From land and water pollution to forced displacement, Indigenous peoples and local communities(opens in new window) are the first to be impacted by unchecked extraction.

Despite the green tint of the EU’s Green Deal, the Critical Raw Materials Act, which entered into force today, or the United States’ Inflation Reduction Act, all these policies have one thing in common: they are growth strategies aimed at securing maximum profits from the energy transition for their respective industries. 

A systemic shift in mobility

The departure point of any just transition should be reducing the overconsumption of raw materials, particularly by the wealthy, where 1% of the world’s population emits as much as two-thirds(opens in new window) of the planet’s poorest. According to some estimates, 384 new mines (opens in new window) will “need” to be excavated in the next 10 years to meet climate goals. A primary approach should always be to look at how developed economies can reduce their material demands so that mines don’t have to be mined in the first place.  

Most of the demand for critical transition minerals is for batteries for privately owned electric vehicles (a consumer good), not in windmills or solar panels for access to energy. For example, in the EU, electric car production accounts for 50-60% of the total demand for critical minerals. For cobalt, graphite and lithium, over 90 % of demand is for EVs.

All of today’s so-called ‘green’  transport transition policies predominately stimulate demand for privately owned vehicles. But the more we can drive down the resource intensity this depends on,  the less pressure there will be on the world’s biodiversity, and communities living around current and potentially future mining areas.

If we go for a “far-reaching and truly systemic shift in mobility”, as the UN International Resource Panel proposed in its March report(opens in new window) , we could decrease material requirements by 50%, as well as lower energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions. This is the basis for the idea of sufficiency(opens in new window) which a growing number of NGOs are championing in the EU.

This shift means that private car ownership must give way to alternatives that are less resource-intensive. Think of shared mobility, better public transport, and increasing space for pedestrians and cyclists. Think of higher taxes on privately owned cars, and cutting subsidies on companies whose business model, such as selling SUVs, prioritises profits over climate. 

This is about preserving our environment and the rights of local mining communities. But it is also about equity in the transition. 

Stop eating up the world’s resources

The amount of minerals needed for the Global North to decarbonise, with its current level of overconsumption, is so huge that it might not leave enough resources available for poorer nations to develop their own renewable energy access or for future generations. In Asia Pacific(opens in new window) , 150 million people don’t have access to electricity, and this number rises to 600 million in Africa(opens in new window) . Making sure that these regions can build renewable energy infrastructures, away from oil and gas, is crucial. 

A large part of the minerals needed for that shift are often lying in their soils but are massively exported raw to richer nations. The latter have the responsibility to reduce their energy consumption and stop eating up the world’s resources. Developing nations need a fair share of those minerals to ensure their own transition, and future generations need these materials for their own needs.

Industrialised nations also need to respect that mineral-rich and developing countries need to transform their minerals to use them for their own energy transition. Only this way can we ensure that every nation on this planet can transition away from fossil fuels and ensure a habitable planet.

The recent creation of the UN Secretary General’s Panel(opens in new window) on Critical Energy Transition Minerals shows how the matter is now on top of the global agenda. This is a good sign, as a lot needs to be done to ensure transition mining doesn’t plunge the world into more devastating extractivism. This is a golden chance to help ensure this doesn’t happen, by promoting policies that reduce the Global North’s resource consumption, and enabling those countries that produce transition minerals, to use them responsibly for their own energy transition needs.

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Posted in category:
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Written by: Beverly Besmanos
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