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Mineral Mining, The Dirty Secret Of The Clean Energy Industry

Green technologies are crucial to reducing carbon emissions, but they require ramping up the need for mining of minerals. And since mineral extraction can cause grave natural destruction, how can we ensure renewables are truly good for the environment?

​Rescuers after a mining incident in northeastern Colombia

Rescuers after a mining incident in northeastern Colombia

María Mónica Monsalve

BOGOTÁ — In the course of international debates on climate change, 2015 was a key year. Representatives of 196 nations signed the Paris Agreement, which aims to keep the average rise in world temperatures to well below 2°C. Signing the pact was challenging enough, but implementing it was and will be even more difficult.

The UN's climate change panel (I.P.C.C.) of scientists in fact noticed an increase in climate-warming emissions between 2010 and 2019. While the sources of this rise are varied, they are largely based on our collective energy consumption, specifically the use of fossil fuels.

The solution, on paper at least, is clear: to migrate to non-polluting, renewable energy sources. But this has raised another immense difficulty: the production of renewable energies will cause a spike in demand for minerals. Solar panels need a fair amount of copper and aluminum, and wind turbines need copper, zinc and a combination of 17 rare-earth elements (REE) not easily found in pure form.

The International Energy Agency (I.E.A.), an advisory council, has observed that an electric vehicle and its batteries need on average six times more mineral inputs, including copper, cobalt, nickel, lithium, REE and aluminum, than a standard car.

Rising demand of aluminum and copper

Alejandro Castañeda, chief executive officer of ANDEG, the national grouping of Colombia's 12 electricity companies, says the sector needs the minerals "at three points." The first, he says, is in production (panels), the second is for transportation and the third in power transmission. "With renewables, we have to locate the project where wind or solar radiation is better, which may require longer transmission lines." These need aluminum and copper.

Forecasts of a quadrupling of demand for minerals for the technologies necessary to meet Paris targets.

On a global scale, the I.E.A. has already made estimates of how much mining must expand to meet Paris targets. Total demand for copper and rare earths will, it states, increase by 40% over the next two decades, with 60% for nickel and 70% for cobalt. Demand for lithium, the extraction of which requires large amounts of water and is already sparking conflicts in countries like Argentina, will rise 90%.

The I.E.A. forecasts a quadrupling of demand for all the minerals for the technologies necessary to meet the Paris targets by 2040, and a six-fold increase by 2040 if we seek net-zero emissions by 2050.

Like everything around climate change, mining for energy transition will imply looking closely at which lines we may cross. The aim is for this "green" mining, as some are calling it, to not replicate the mistakes of the mining industry so far.

Colombia's rare earth and nickel

Colombia has yet to accurately gauge its potential for new minerals. The Colombian Geological Service and the Mining and Energy Planning Unit (UPME), a part of the Mines and Energy ministry, have worked hard to explore what lies beneath Colombia's territory, but "we need information with specific details... That's the first step," says Castañeda.

Sarita Ruiz Morato, a lecturer in Government and International relations at Colombia's Externado university and specialist in mining and sustainability, says there is definitely nickel in Colombia, with "proven reserves of 20 million tons." This is already being mined near Córdoba in the north of the country by an Australian firm. There are, she says, lesser reserves of copper and nickel, with only one extraction operation planned currently in a mine in the state of Chocó in the west of the country.

She also cites the presence of Coltan, the exploitation of which has yet to be regulated in Colombia, and metallurgical or coking carbon, used to make fuel for steel-making, which she adds is a highly polluting process. The Mines and Energy ministry has said that the country has around 80 minerals listed by the Geological Service, though not all of them would serve the energy transition.

It also stated that the country's extractive policies are not currently focused on exploiting minerals to use in this transition. But the ExploraCO program seeks to diversify the mining basket and meet growing global demand for minerals. The state of Chocó has identified 46 strategic projects , 36 of which are in the exploratory stage. The minerals sought in particular are gold (27 projects), copper (15), silver (two), nickel (one) and rare earths (one).

The Colombian has developed the UPME to design a strategy for producing copper, gold and other transition minerals between 2022 and 2027.

Aerial view of the explosion of ''La Mestiza'' mine in Colombia\u200b

Aerial view of the explosion of ''La Mestiza'' mine in Colombia

Ferley Ospina/dpa/ZUMA

The environmental price

Colombian Energy Minister Diego Mesa has repeatedly said that his country must join the copper boom that will accompany the global energy transition. He has called copper "the new oil" and touted Colombia as the possible third biggest producer in Latin America.

But José Antonio Vega, a researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute, says the country has some way to go. Colombia currently produces around 10-11,000 tons of copper a year, while Mexico, which is the third producer on the continent after Chile and Peru, produces 700-800,000 tons. "It's a big increase," says Vega. While copper exportation can be immensely lucrative, with China providing a voracious market, Vega says many of its production zones in Colombia are near the Caribbean, whose regions have already suffered the environmental and social effects of coal mining. This, he said, meant sticking to the extractive economic model and dependence on commodities that restrict Colombia's development.

The National Mining Agency has pointed out five strategic areas for copper mining. Vega says, if "you want to talk about mining for the energy transition, you'd have to talk about local chains and social transformation and not just see it in terms of exporting raw materials." Both Vega and Sarita Ruiz agree that the continent has the right minerals for this energy transition, but their extraction must be based on decisions taken with the inclusion of territories, local authorities and communities, not just the government.

Biodiversity on the line

In 207, the Colombian state coroner's office published a report on the effects of the Cerro Matoso nickel mine on the health of locals. It's the largest mine in South America and has the largest nickel reserve in Colombia.

A range of symptoms were observed but since it was difficult to irrefutably pin them on the mine, its purpose at the minute is just informative. It illustrates some of the reasons why mining has been a source of socio-environmental conflicts.

82% of mining zones for renewables overlapped with protected areas or nature reserves.

The Environmental Justice Atlas suggests that some 20% of all environmental conflicts registered around the world are due to mining and the extraction of metals. And the minerals needed for the world's energy transition are not exempt from the problem. Already in 2021, the British-based Business and Human Rights Resources Center found more than 300 charges relating to pollution and violations of human or communal rights that had been directed at firms extracting minerals for the energy transition.

What's more, a study published in 2020 found that 82% of mining zones seeking minerals for renewables overlapped with protected areas or nature reserves. This threat to biodiversity, it observed, would likely increase as mining for new minerals expands, and if there is no "strategic planning"of this new phase in mining.

Flover Rodríguez Portillo, chief executive of the Colombian Association of Oil Geologists and Geophysicists, says that there are signs that the new mining will be more sustainable. Many mining firms arrived in Colombia "before there was an Environment Ministry, and faced no environmental priority." Now, he adds, our "energy mining sector is one of the most regulated, even worldwide, even if in practice institutions are very weak."

The energy transition should perhaps begin with changing a few labels. In 2020, an article published in the journal Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews examined whether renewables would reduce or increase conflicts around the world. Its authors observed that unless the transition tackles the matter of wanton energy consumption, it would do nothing to solve current problems of energy security, the threat of cutting off supplies, or regional instabilities. We should firstly ask ourselves: if we curb our energy use, how much mining will we ultimately need?

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