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The green revolution is fuelling environmental destruction – article for The Telegraph – 20.01.23

Net zero warning as the staggering true cost of going green is revealed - By Matt Oliver and Jack Ryan.

Roughly 80 miles off the coast of Yorkshire, the new generation of offshore wind turbines being built at Dogger Bank will be taller than some skyscrapers.

Along with masses of solar panels and electric cars, these feats of human engineering will become the backbone of a new, green economy that will emerge as we abandon fossil fuels.

Yet as we embrace net zero carbon emissions in the name of saving the planet, growing tensions are emerging over what must be done to achieve this goal.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the World Bank, the switch to “cleaner” renewable energy sources is going to require an unprecedented surge in the extraction of precious minerals from the earth.

Whether it is lithium and cobalt needed for batteries, or rare earth elements used for magnets that power wind turbines and electric car motors, we simply can’t make the green technologies we need without them.

Yet campaigners and researchers warn that the mines producing these minerals raise troubling environmental questions of their own, with the worst examples ravaging landscapes, polluting water supplies and desolating crops. The industry also poses geopolitical challenges for Britain and its allies, with China currently dominating the supply chains.

It means that without drastic improvements to global standards and greater engagement by the West, the switch to clean power risks becoming very dirty indeed.

Henry Sanderson, a business journalist and author of Volt Rush, a book that examines the complicated issues surrounding transition minerals, believes that overcoming these contradictions is one of the biggest challenges facing businesses and policymakers.

“Mining has an impact. And often local communities don't want it,” he says. “So how do you reconcile those facts with the fact we need mining for clean energy technologies?

“It is a hard question to answer. But we are seeing a lot of these trade-offs come up now.

“And if we don't want other countries to control the green transition, we need to grapple with and grasp these issues.”

'Explosion' of mining

The sheer quantity of minerals and metals needed for the green revolution - which entails the widespread electrification of transport and energy production - is staggering.

Minerals such as lithium, cobalt and nickel will go into batteries that store electricity and power billions of electric cars. Copper will be required for new power lines needed everywhere. Rare earth metals will be used to make magnets that are vital for the spinning parts in wind turbines and electric motors.

What’s more, they will be needed in much bigger quantities than ever before. Whereas a conventional car uses about 34kg of minerals, an electric car requires 207kg, or six times as much, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Meanwhile, a typical offshore wind turbine requires 13 times more minerals than a gas-fired power plant for each megawatt of capacity.

The IEA predicts this will cause demand for critical minerals to soar to 42.3m tonnes per year by 2050 - up from around 7m tonnes in 2020.

Per Kalvig, an expert at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, says this will require an “explosion” of mining in the coming years.

“They’re necessary for wind turbines, for electric vehicles. Europe needs these minerals, and it doesn’t want to continue relying on China to produce them”, he explains.

It is prompting difficult questions for the EU, which believes it will need five times as much rare earth minerals by 2030, a meteoric rise that will require a correspondingly rapid increase in extraction.

Whether the practice of actually mining the materials will be permitted within the bloc is another matter, however.

Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission vice president, has said there are 11 potentially viable lithium projects in Europe and that if they all become operational they could meet nearly two-fifths of EU demand by 2030. They include sites in Finland, Spain, Portugal, Serbia, the Czech Republic and Austria.

But in Portugal, for example, where large lithium resources exist, there has been persistent opposition from local communities against new mining schemes.

British company Savannah is among those trying to open a project in the northern region of Barroso by 2025 with EU funding. It plans to produce about 5,000 tons of lithium a year.

But despite the company’s protestations that it has been “specifically designed to minimise its impact on the natural environment and local communities wherever possible” – such as new ways of storing waste and recycling 85pc of its water – it has struggled to persuade naysayers.

In Sweden too, where Europe’s biggest ever discovery of rare earth oxides was recently made, progress is proving tricky.

Miner LKAB wants to start producing but needs to secure a string of permits. Meanwhile, a court battle is ongoing over the revocation of a licence in 2016, amid concerns that operations in Norra Karr, in the south of Sweden, were polluting local water supplies.

Given the strength of feeling in communities, Kalvig is doubtful there is the political will in Europe to push through many domestic mining schemes. "Generally, we experience public resistance against mining projects," he adds.

But if Europe is unwilling to extract minerals itself for the green transition, it will simply need to import them from somewhere else – and typically, that means Africa and Asia.

A handful of countries currently produce more than three quarters of the world’s supply of critical minerals and rare earth metals – with China chief among them.

The Democratic Republic of Congo was responsible for 70pc of global cobalt production in 2019, for example, while China produced 60pc of the rare earth metals.

Crucially, China dominates refining, with its plants processing 90pc of rare earth metals, between 50pc and 70pc of lithium and cobalt and 35pc of nickel. With the help of generous state subsidies, Chinese companies have spent years snapping up mines in other countries too, from Australia to Chile, the DRC and Indonesia, to further entrench their positions.

It means the question of how far governments are willing to go is not only domestic in nature but geopolitical as well. This is why some are examining the potential of mineral extraction from the sea bed - despite loud protestations from environmental groups.

While China has raced ahead producing critical minerals since the 1980s, the country also presents a cautionary tale of environmental destruction as well.

Lax oversight and poor standards have blighted landscapes and cost rural residents their lives, saddling provincial governments with massive cleanup operations in recent years.

Some of the most visible damage has been in Inner Mongolia, where local media described fields of wheat and corn “carpeted in black dust”, brown-coloured rivers and unusually high numbers of deaths in what became known as “cancer villages” near the mines.

Every year, millions of tonnes of toxic waste was discharged into a 10km wide lake not far from the Yellow River - leading to fears it could poison a source of drinking water used by 150m people.

But worryingly, as Beijing now cracks down on mineral mining at home, it is exporting these same toxic practices elsewhere.

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The green revolution is fuelling environmental destruction
. – article for The Telegraph –

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A rare earth mine along Myanmar's border with China, an industry causing extreme environmental damage Credit: Supplied by Global Witness

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