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Report: Just Transition to Renewable Energy Requires Mining Industry Reform

The coming energy transition may be carbon-free, but it is still very much dependent on mining—and that has experts warning that stringent regulation is needed to ensure that the shift to renewable energy is truly sustainable. MiningWatch Canada has released some recommendations on how to make it happen.

“Mining waste has increased more than 300% in some regions in the past decade,” while mining itself generates “up to 20%” of global greenhouse gas emissions, writes The Narwhal. With the World Bank forecasting that the energy transition will increase demand for key minerals 30- to 800-fold by 2050, policies must be put in place to ensure the industry conducts itself in a manner that is both safe and just.

As it stands, existing laws and regulation just aren’t up to the task.

“We’re trading fossil fuel extraction for mineral extraction,” said Jamie Kneen, MiningWatch Canada’s communication outreach coordinator. “We have to change the rules. Action has to be much more comprehensive and committed.”

To help drive that change, MiningWatch Canada compiled the recommendations generated by some 200 experts and activists at an international meeting in Ottawa last November.

At the top of their list is the need to scale back the demand for mineral extraction by reducing the amount of energy we use—an overall imperative, since mineral resources are themselves decidedly finite. Citing a 2019 report by Earthworks and the Institute for Sustainable Futures, The Narwhal notes that “the projected mineral demand for renewable energy would consume all of the cobalt, lithium, and nickel on the planet.”

The Earthworks report did, however, outline a path toward mineral conservation, noting that “improving manufacturing efficiency and implementing recycling policies could reduce demand for certain primary minerals by up to 40%.”

For its own part, MiningWatch says systemic changes to both urban design and transit systems will be needed to reduce the number of cars on the road, given that EV batteries will likely be the main driver of mineral demand in the future. To reduce that demand, walking and biking—not just zero-emissions vehicles—must be part of the equation.

In fact, MiningWatch identifies battery recycling as the most immediate way to reduce battery metal demand. Experts at the November meeting recommended government-led efforts to encourage and support recycling initiatives, as industry-led recycling from companies like Tesla Motors will not be sufficient.

Also needed are legal reforms that introduce accountability across the entire supply chain, and better environmental protection against mining disasters. “The MiningWatch report suggests establishing participatory, community-based processes to identify no-go zones, supported by local, national, and international legal frameworks,” reports The Narwhal. “One of the no-go zones highlighted in the report is the ocean floor, where the extraction of minerals could cause irreparable damage to ecosystems.”

But protecting those ecosystems “boils down to who has the final say”—and that’s a complex picture, said Kneen. “Will this be the First Nation or the community? Or is it the government on behalf of society at large? Or is it just a corporate feasibility study?” he asked.

Before those questions can be answered, Kneen added, much work will need to be done to ensure that Indigenous and other human rights are clearly defined and protected in law, and that the industry can break “from the pattern of colonial and capitalist exploitation.” While MiningWatch declares that no mineral extraction that occurs without free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples and the consent of local communities can be called sustainable, The Narwhal reports that “the right to say ‘no’” does not exist in most jurisdictions.

“There’s a clear imbalance of power,” said Kneen. “When the mining company shows up, they’ve got their teams of technical people and lawyers and what have you. And then you’ve got the community people—they’re just outgunned.”

The issue has immediate, practical implications for Canada, with iPolitics reporting projections from the International Renewable Energy Agency that “Canada’s solar sector will be responsible for 700 tonnes of waste from decommissioned solar panels in 2020.” Over the next decade, “this number could rise to 13,000 tonnes.”

In the face of that volume, Canada currently “lacks incentives for sustainable manufacturing, and…doesn’t have a dedicated solar panel recycling facility,” the publication notes. But “solar panels have a lifespan of about 25 years. and early adopters are now facing the issue of having to properly dispose of them.”

The first step toward creating a solar panel recycling facility and thus mitigating the coming crisis is to address the lack of guidelines for classifying photovoltaics “as hazardous or electronic waste,” iPolitics adds. That designation would bring solar panels into the country’s extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations, which provinces and territories currently use to keep such waste from entering landfills.