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Transitioning to lower carbon economies while... sustaining existent power disparities?

The disproportionate socioenvironmental consequences of the increased demand for minerals to resource-rich countries

Bruna Viana de Freitas

As the world moves towards greater consensus about the need to mitigate global warming, and nations evolve in discussions towards attempting to limit the earth’s rising temperature from 1,5 to 2 Celsius degrees above industrial levels (1), discourses about the energy transition gain common-sense. What, in theory, could be understood as a global attempt to protect humans and nature from the irreversible consequences of climate change is, in practice, a controversial issue when the operationalisation of the transition is considered. This discussion brings to the table negotiations at the global level regarding who will pay for mitigation efforts in developing countries that have contributed less significantly to global warming; how will the workers from fossil fuel industries around the world be relocated, and who will account for the impacts caused by the intensification of mining in the countries rich in the so-called critical minerals for the energy transition. In this text, I focus on the latter, specifically discussing the context in Latin America, a region with a significant proportion of current extraction and reserves of critical minerals. 

 

What are we talking about when advocating for a "just energy transition”? 

 

The danger of climate change reaching a level of global warming with catastrophic consequences for human life on the planet has imposed the imperative of the energy transition. The industrialisation that sustained the economic development of Global North countries was primarily based on burning fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide gas (CO2), which is generated as a result of burning fossil fuels, deforestation and other sources, is one of the greenhouse gases (GHG) that mainly contributes to aggravating global warming (2). In the current context, countries are expected to mitigate climate change, which encompasses reducing GHG emissions, enhancing GHG sinks and improving energy efficiency (3). The greater the dependence of a country's economic matrix on fossil fuels, the greater will be the effort to divest in carbon industries and invest in climate-smart development. Since developing countries are unequally able to invest in mitigating climate change and have contributed a minority share to the historic greenhouse gas emissions that have imposed its necessity (4), the debate on the energy transition involves a discussion about justice.

 

The disparities in contribution to climate change exist not only between developed and developing economies but also among a country’s richer and poorer populations. The environmental justice movement addresses the inequality of wealthier people worldwide consuming more energy and producing more waste, while marginalised people are more deeply affected by the results of this consumption (5). Unequal consumption generates consequent inequality in the energy footprint among social groups: the 10% of the world’s population with higher consumption rates consumes 20 times more energy than the lowest 10% (6). Without acknowledging this discrepancy in contribution to global warming among social groups, it is impossible to discuss just transition. Thus, “climate justice requires consideration not only of whether to tackle climate change by transitioning from a fossil fuel economy but more profoundly of how to undertake that transition” (Scott & Smith, 2016, p. 863)

 

The concept of “just transition” originated in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States and, more recently, has been used to evoke “a fair and equitable process of moving towards a post-carbon society” (McCauley & Heffron as cited by Bainton et al., 2021, p. 625). So far, this notion has been mainly used to advocate for the importance of relocating fossil fuel industries’ workers and communities whose livelihoods depend on the operation of such companies. Thus, initially, the “just transition” discussion is framed around arguing that the burden of the energy transition should not be borne solely by one group of workers, which is geographically unequally distributed (7). However, scholars highlight the risk of this concept being watered down and reappropriated by industries without significantly transforming their practices instead of leading to the questioning of the very extractive capitalist model that generated the need for the energy transition (8)

The reasons behind the increased demand for minerals
 

One of the most relevant aspects that is put aside when the discussion is focused on the relocation of workers is the impact of the increased demand for minerals (9). Regardless of which clean energy technologies are to be implemented by countries, they all have higher material intensity than electricity generated by fossil fuels. In a context that would secure a maximum two °C global warming scenario the World Bank estimates an increase of up to 500% in demand for some of the minerals needed to build clean energy technologies and store their electricity (10). While this represents an opportunity for economic development for resource-rich countries, it also deepens the social and environmental impacts generated by mining - consequences that are not equally distributed among social groups or geographic areas (11). A significantly lower number of studies within just transition research have focused on this issue, called "the dark side of the energy transition" (12).

 

The technologies needed to generate and store energy through renewable sources (solar panels, wind turbines and electric grids) and the materials required to replace conventional cars with electric ones, besides the batteries needed to support the decarbonisation of the transportation sector, are the critical reasons for the increased demand for minerals (13). The six key minerals among all needed to support the energy transition are lithium, copper, graphite, cobalt, nickel, and rare earth metals (14). Their current geographic concentration is higher than the concentration of oil and gas (15). Latin America (especially Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile and Peru) represent a significant proportion of current global extraction and reserves of lithium, copper, graphite, nickel and rare earths (16). Due to the economic relevance of the extractive sector to Latin American countries (17), local governments have been overall in favour of the development of these industries (18), despite the growing number of conflicts related to mining projects in the area (19).

 

Current socio-environmental impacts generated by large-scale mining that tend to increase in the context of the energy transition include using and polluting water, consuming energy, polluting the air and soil, harming biodiversity, generating waste that is stored in mine tailings, impacting traditional livelihoods, increasing violence, child labour and sexual abuse (20).  

Scholars have questioned the estimates regarding the demand for minerals needed to sustain the energy transition, since they do not involve reconsidering current societal consumption patterns (21). Instead, they calculate the quantity of minerals needed to maintain the current global consumption pattern, which, besides being harmful to the environment, is unequal between the richest and poorest populations of the world. Without questioning the current model of production and consumption and reinforcing the urgency imposed by climate change, mining companies have presented themselves as the sustainable solution to the energy transition, disregarding the impacts that accompany the expansion of the mining activity (22)
 

Whose voices are being sacrificed?

 

Although mining operations disproportionally affect communities close to the extraction sites, these people’s voices are not always heard in decision-making processes about extractive projects. In Latin America, many current and planned mines of critical minerals are located within indigenous areas (23). The International Labor Organization Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, which guards the right of indigenous and tribal peoples to be consulted about development projects in their territories through the mechanism of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (24), was ratified by fifteen of the twenty nations of the region. However, the 2009 United Nations General Assembly report states that ILO-169 does not grant communities the power to veto development projects. Consequently, consultation processes with a non-binding character about extractive projects in Latin America are often seen as tokenistic initiatives where “ultimate decisions are legitimized under performative mechanisms of participation presented as consent”  (Vela-Almeida et al., 2021)

The rush to demonstrate progress in moving away from carbon-based economies and investing in green energy has led governments to bypass mechanisms of citizen participation and loosen environmental protection measures that would have been applied in the case of conventional energy projects (25). This urgency carries the risk that the energy transition demand for minerals creates new sacrifice zones - areas chosen by companies and governments to implement industries that cause known severe health consequences to fenceline communities (26).

 

Although the geographic concentration of critical minerals was not defined by humankind, the choice of which areas will be considered sacrifice zones and the extent to which local governments will make companies accountable for their impacts are determined by power disparities. At the local level, I understand that within countries rich in critical minerals, sacrifice zones of the energy transition will most likely be closer to the poor, racialised and marginalised communities. At the global level, local communities in countries from the Global South might face the most severe consequences due to less strict regulation on companies in comparison with the regulation imposed in Global North countries. 

 

Communities, academics, and activists say that an energy transition that heavily depends on mining new materials without considering materials and energy for what, for whom, and at what socio-environmental costs will only reinforce injustices and lack of sustainability that have deepened the climate crisis in the first place. (Deniau et al., 2021, p. 5)

Failing to consider such questions would mean that while carbon emissions might be successfully reduced with greener energy technologies and economies from countries rich in critical minerals might considerably grow, the power structures on which extractive capitalism has been based until today might remain untouched in the energy transition (27). Without questioning the power structures that allow extractive companies to cause disproportional socio-environmental impacts in developing countries, the voices of the poor from the Global South tend to be the most sacrificed in favour of the “common good” of mitigating climate change.

 

Notes

  1. COP26, 2021; UNFCCC, 2016

  2. Tanner & Horn-Phathanothai, 2014

  3. Boyd et al., 2009

  4. Tanner & Horn-Phathanothai, 2014

  5. Lerner & Brown, 2010a; Scott & Smith, 2016

  6. Oswald et al., 2020

  7. Bainton et al., 2021

  8. Bainton et al., 2021

  9. Bainton et al., 2021

  10. Hund et al., 2020

  11. Bainton et al., 2021; Deniau et al., 2021; Marín & Goya, 2021

  12. Marín & Goya, 2021

  13. Deniau et al., 2021

  14. Deniau et al., 2021

  15. IEA, 2022

  16. Deniau et al., 2021

  17. Since the 1990s, Latin America has received the higher amount of foreign investment in the mining sector globally, which represented 24% of all foreign investment in the region between 2009 and 2014. The economic growth related to mining led to the countries’ economies being strongly dependent on the sector and, consequently, on the international prices of minerals (Vio Gorget & Walter, 2016).

  18. Vela-Almeida et al., 2021

  19. Marín & Goya, 2021

  20. Amazon Watch & APIB, 2022; Deniau et al., 2021; Marín & Goya, 2021

  21. Deniau et al., 2021

  22. Deniau et al., 2021

  23. Deniau et al., 2021

  24. ILO, 1989

  25. Scott & Smith, 2016

  26. Lerner & Brown, 2010b

  27. Scott & Smith, 2016

References 

Amazon Watch, & APIB. (2022). Cumplicity in Destruction: How mining companies and international investors drive indigenous rights violations and threaten the future of the Amazon.


Bainton, N., Kemp, D., Lèbre, E., Owen, J. R., & Marston, G. (2021). The energy-extractives nexus and the just transition. Sustainable Development, 29(4), 624–634. https://doi.org/10.1002/SD.2163
 

Boyd, E., Grist, N., Juhola, S., & Nelson, V. (2009). Exploring development futures in a changing climate: Frontiers for development policy and practice. Development Policy Review, 27(6), 659–674. https://doi.org/10.1111/J.1467-7679.2009.00464.X
 

COP26. (2021, November 13). COP26 keeps 1.5C alive and finalises Paris Agreement - UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) at the SEC – Glasgow 2021. UN Climate Change Conference . https://ukcop26.org/cop26-keeps-1-5c-alive-and-finalises-paris-agreement/
 

Deniau, Y., Herrera, V., & Walter, M. (2021). Mapping Community Resistance to the Impacts of Mining for the Energy Transition in the Americas . https://miningwatch.ca/publications/2022/3/4/mapping-community-resistance-impacts-mining-energy-transition-americas
 

Hund, K., Porta, D. la, Fabregas, T. P., Laing, T., & Drexhage, J. (2020). Minerals for Climate Action: The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition. www.worldbank.org
 

IEA, I. E. A. (2022). The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions . https://www.iea.org/reports/the-role-of-critical-minerals-in-clean-energy-transitions
 

ILO. (1989). Convention C169 - Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989. https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_INSTRUMENT_ID:312314
 

Lerner, S., & Brown, P. (2010a). Conclusion. In Sacrifice Zones : The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States (pp. 297–314). MIT Press. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/suss/detail.action?docID=4660573
 

Lerner, S., & Brown, P. (2010b). Introduction. In Sacrifice Zones : The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States (pp. 1–15). MIT Press. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/suss/detail.action?docID=4660573
 

Marín, A., & Goya, D. (2021). Mining—The dark side of the energy transition. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 41, 86–88. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.EIST.2021.09.011
 

Oswald, Y., Owen, A., & Steinberger, J. K. (2020). Large inequality in international and intranational energy

footprints between income groups and across consumption categories. Nature Energy, 5(3), 231–239. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-020-0579-8
 

Scott, D. N., & Smith, A. A. (2016). Sacrifice Zones in the Green Energy Economy: Toward an Environmental Justice Framework. McGill Law Journal, 62. https://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/mcgil62&id=893&div=32&collection=journals
 

Tanner, T., & Horn-Phathanothai, L. (2014). Climate change and development. In Climate Change and Development. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203818862
 

UNFCCC, U. N. F. C. on C. C. (2016). The Paris Agreement . https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement
 

Vela-Almeida, D., Gonzalez, A., Gavilán, I., Fenner Sánchez, G. M., Torres, N., & Ysunza, V. (2021). The right to decide: A triad of participation in politicizing extractive governance in Latin America. Extractive Industries and Society. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exis.2021.01.010
 

Vio Gorget, D., & Walter, M. (2016). Marcos normativos e institucionales de la minería en América Latina . https://publications.iadb.org/publications/spanish/document/Marcos-normativos-e-institucionales-de-la-miner%C3%ADa-en-Am%C3%A9rica-Latina.pdf

Johnny Mclendon - Unsplash.jpg

Photo: Johnny Mclendon - Unsplash

Sobre a autora

Bruna Viana é facilitadora de processos participativos, com experiência em apoiar organizações de diferentes setores a criar colaboração entre atores relevantes e tomar decisões que considerem todos os seus impactos. Chevening Scholar, mestre em Power, Participation and Social Change no Institute of Development Studies - University of Sussex, Reino Unido. Bruna também é Amani fellow, tendo cursado o diploma de pós-graduação em Social Innovation Management do Instituto Amani. 

Sobre este site

Neste site, publico histórias sobre projetos relevantes nos quais estive envolvida em minha trajetória, além de conteúdos - reflexões, proposições e histórias - que julgo poderem inspirar olhares mais conscientes e sustentáveis sobre as formas como nos relacionamos, produzimos, consumimos, vivemos. Desejo que o que me alimenta o pensamento possa gerar ideias em você também. Se algo que você encontrar aqui te der vontade de conversar mais, me escreva em brunaviafre@gmail.com.

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