A poorly designed green energy transition could bring further environmental and human rights violations to communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

Climate justice and human rights advocates had high hopes heading into the COP26 conference in Glasgow this November. With the prospect of significant climate commitments from major countries, it seemed possible, maybe even reasonable, that this year would be the one when world leaders took the climate crisis seriously. 

Unfortunately, world leaders failed to deliver on many of the commitments that youth activists, Indigenous leaders, and community leaders on the sidelines of the event demanded. The pledges on emissions cuts made at COP26 “fell well short of those required to limit temperatures to 1.5C, ” according to scientific advice. UN Secretary General Guterres echoed this sentiment as he summed up the general public’s reaction to the conference: “I know you are disappointed.” Guterres’ focus on Indigenous communities and others who are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis reflects a growing agitation and despondence that world leaders are not acting boldly enough to address the problem. It is critical that world leaders act to mitigate the human rights and environmental risks that will be imposed on frontline communities in the shift to a low carbon economy unless strong safeguards are put in place.

Breaking up with fossil fuels

One of the hallmarks of fossil fuel projects is that they impose tremendous human rights and environmental harms on communities. In the United States, we’ve seen local police forces cooperate with pipeline companies to criminalize protesters at the Line 3 pipeline expansion project in Minnesota, the Dakota Access Pipeline in South Dakota, the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana, and the Jordan Cove LNG Terminal in Oregon, among others.

That’s not to say that we haven’t seen progress to move away from fossil fuels. Domestically, the enactment of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was a significant step forward by investing in and enacting climate-smart policies. Specifically, the $7.5 billion to build out the first-ever national network of Electric Vehicle (EV) chargers, the promise of thousands of electric school buses nationwide is crucial for a low carbon future as “emissions from transportation account for about 29 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it the largest contributor of U.S. GHG emissions.” Renewable energy and EVs are pivotal, as there is no feasible way to limit global warming to 1.5C by relying on fossil fuels. But, the unfettered implementation of renewable energy and the rollout of EVs need green minerals, specifically lithium, for batteries. These come with their own set of environmental challenges.

The problems with extracting lithium

The batteries that EVs, such as a Tesla, and wind and solar energies rely on to store energy require significant amounts of green minerals. But extracting lithium harms the environment and frontline communities–often Indigenous. Without further protections in place, the green energy revolution threatens to raise the same concerns that have plagued the fossil fuel era. Lithium extraction in South America is projected to increase astronomically with the adoption of EVs and renewable energy implementation, in turn, increasing lithium battery prices and exacerbating the harms and possible human rights violations imposed upon those living near extraction sites.

Situated in the Lithium Triangle, which encompasses parts of Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and soon, Peru, the Atacama Desert in Chile holds some of the largest reserves of lithium in the world and is where major lithium extraction is taking place. Indigenous Peoples, such as the Atacameño, live in this fragile ecosystem and did so long before lithium became a sought-after commodity. Extraction requires pumping significant quantities of water, both freshwater, and brine, from the ground, which lowers the overall aquifer levels available to Indigenous communities. Currently, more water is leaving the watershed than is being replaced by storms, snowmelt, and naturally occurring events.

Two lithium companies operating in Chile, Albemarle, a US multinational headquartered in North Carolina, can pump about 442 liters of water per second, while Sociedad Química y Minera (SQM), a Chilean company, can pump around 1,700 liters per second. Comparatively, a local community near a mining operation has a license to pump 1.5 liters of water per second to supply 400 residents. Satellite imagery used in a 2019 study found that “drought conditions had worsened, soil moisture and vegetation declined, and daytime temperatures rose.” For comparison, 1,700 liters per second is 6.12 million liters per hour, enough to fill over two Olympic swimming pools.

The effects on biodiversity are also significant. Flamingos, for instance, are experiencing the negative effects of lithium extraction. With water levels dropping, the delicate ponds that the region’s three species of flamingos rely on for brine shrimp are disappearing. The three flamingo species that are known to the area are considered either vulnerable or near threatened.

Governments must protect human rights in the energy transition

At COP 26, we did not see world leaders confront the human rights implications of green mineral extraction head-on. On the contrary, Indigenous leaders, youth activists, and others on the frontlines of the climate crisis were largely excluded from the meeting. The U.S. government still lacks a coherent plan for how it will procure green minerals for EVs and renewables, such as lithium and cobalt, which is found in significant quantities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. The Biden administration must adopt best mining practices for its own domestically sourced lithium, as well as engage and work with local communities that will be affected. The administration must also enforce the same corporate accountability standards abroad as we expect domestically.

The human rights and environmental issues associated with the transition to a low carbon economy are avoidable. There is currently a significant lack of concern regarding the human rights violations associated with this shift. While solving one issue, we create another. This is a vicious and inefficient cycle, detrimental to the most vulnerable.