Climate justice means looking beyond greenhouse gas emissions

A majority of Americans care about climate change and support a drastic shift to renewable energy. In a 2020 survey, Pew Research Center found: “Over 90% of Americans favored planting a trillion trees worldwide, and[…]American’s overall preference to prioritize renewable energy is reflected in views of specific energy source development. Large shares say they would also favor increasing the amount of solar panel farms (90%) and wind farms (83%).” 

So, overall, the consensus is there: Americans want more renewable energy as part of our power production. The Biden Administration and many members of Congress have called for a new emphasis on supporting green policies and re-engaging with the Paris Climate Agreement; the goal of which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to limit a global temperature increase of 2° Celsius. Policy solutions like the Paris Agreement and the Green New Deal push for renewable energy as a major part of the response to climate change.  

However, the natural resources needed for renewable energy technologies could prove a major hurdle in achieving this goal, not only concerning supply chains and current production levels, but also the human rights implications for people who will be negatively affected by the extraction of these natural resources. When policymakers focus single-mindedly on reducing greenhouse gas emissions without taking human rights into consideration, they risk locking us into energy sources that are not actually “green” or sustainable. 

Using “green minerals” in renewable energy

To obtain more electricity from renewable energy means more wind turbines and solar panels. These technologies, in turn, require more mining operations. Minerals and metals, called “green minerals,” are crucial for batteries and the components in renewable energy technologies. 

The majority of renewable technologies depend on lithium-ion batteries to hold the charge that they create, and these batteries require significant amounts of lithium as well as cobalt, and nickel. Solar energy, along with copper, silver, and aluminum, needs a number of minerals such as cadmium, indium, gallium, selenium, and tellurium. Wind energy uses magnets containing neodymium and dysprosium, and large amounts of copper and aluminum, as well as rare earth minerals. 

A finite resource

Governments and industries are racing to secure mining rights and reserves due to the inevitable expansion of lithium-ion battery demand. One of the primary sources is the “Lithium Triangle,” which encompasses Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and, more recently, Peru.

The demand for lithium, driven by batteries, is expected to increase astronomically by 2030, and electric vehicles alone are expected to account for more than 70% of that demand. And these are conservative estimates. President Biden’s pick for Energy Secretary, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, is expected to push for an electric vehicle uptick in the American marketplace. Currently, an average electric vehicle needs around 20 pounds of lithium. If we want a million electric vehicles produced a year in the United States, that would require in excess of 50,000 tons of lithium. The problem is that in 2019, globally, only 77,000 metric tons of lithium were produced. This million car scenario does not take into account laptops, cellphones, and of course, other countries. A massive increase in extraction and production will be needed to satisfy a growing demand for electric vehicles.

Impacts on Indigenous and frontline communities

Where and how the world satisfies this increased demand for lithium could have devastating effects on local and Indigenous communities. For example, mining companies extract lithium from the earth’s crust (called continental brines or subsurface brines). Once extracted, the brine is pooled into evaporation ponds where chemicals are added, and eventually, the water dissipates, leaving the resulting product, a white powder that is then processed. When the brine is extracted, however, the water comes from the same watersheds that Indigenous and local communities rely on for drinking water and irrigation. In extracting the brines, the entire watershed drops, meaning freshwater falls deeper, making it more difficult for local communities to access this freshwater. Numerous studies, including a preliminary study from 2020 on water usage in the Atacama Desert in Chile, where major lithium projects are located, found that more water was leaving the system through pumping and evaporation than was coming back via rain and snowmelt, raising concerns among Indigenous communities and environmentalists. Located in some of the most arid deserts in the world, the loss of water from brine extraction can be devastating to the water sources relied upon by local and Indigenous communities. 

In The Federalist, conservative journalist H.A. Goodman argued ‘that a green dream would be a nightmare for Indigenous communities around the globe.’ While he conveniently forgot to mention the violent and exploitative history of fossil fuel extraction, he is correct that large-scale mining operations—whether of fossil fuels or of green minerals—pose a significant risk to local communities.

Fossil fuels are not the answer to renewable challenges

It is clear that we cannot turn back to fossil fuels. Renewable energy technologies are one of the most promising ways to meet our global energy demand while minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. The emissions of renewable energies are generally around 6% of that of coal and gas in the electricity sector. That translates roughly to a 94% reduction in emissions.

But unless we are careful, the race for green minerals will amplify the destruction that fossil fuels have caused to communities around the world. Fortunately, we can learn from the mistakes of the fossil fuel era. We cannot rely on companies to police themselves. Even the most responsible corporate actors are all too happy to source their minerals from reckless suppliers with few questions asked. Governments, as well as the public, need to hold these companies to account when harm occurs – accountability is the only way to ensure that a company treats local communities in a responsible way. This is just as true for renewable energy companies as it is for fossil fuel companies.

When we develop new policies and technologies to fight climate change, people and communities on the frontlines of this transition must be included in these decisions. Including Indigenous peoples and relevant communities in these changes is critical to ensuring a just transition from fossil fuels.

A green economy and human rights must go hand-in-hand if we want an equitable climate future. Let’s act now to ensure that green minerals do not become the next big human rights crisis.