Global renewable energy transition could lead to conflict without proper management

The transition to 100 percent renewable energy needs a lot of minerals to build wind, solar, and battery technology. This has the potential to cause fuel fragility, conflict, and violence if not managed responsibly. Joshua S. Hill takes a look at the recent report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

looking down into a mine with three young men working

Wolframite and Casserite mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where armed groups have taken over certain cobalt mines (Photo by Julien Harneis, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) is a global think-tank based in Canada focusing on sustainable development, and this week it published a new report, Green Conflict Minerals: The fuels of conflict in the transition to a low-carbon economy. The report investigates the potential for poorly-managed acquisition of minerals necessary for low-carbon technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels, improved energy storage, and electric vehicles.

As with any natural resources down through the ages, unless managed well and responsibly, it can cause local and regional strife. This is the case whether we’re talking about water, fossil fuels, precious stones, or highly-valuable mineral resources used in all of life’s “necessities.”

“Stories of armed groups operating cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo and of riots breaking out around bauxite mining in Guinea are just two examples that have raised this issue’s profile, but it’s something that needs to be championed by the same voices correctly calling for a green economic transition,” explained report co-author Clare Church. “Most of these metals are not covered in existing conflict mineral legislation, with the exception of tin.”

The report starts out by explaining, simply, that the “technologies required to facilitate this shift, including wind turbines, solar panels and improved energy storage, all require significant mineral and metal inputs and, absent any dramatic technological advances or an increase in the use of recycled materials, these inputs will come from the mining sector.” The question, therefore, is how best to acquire and source these resources in a way that does not exacerbate or create local and regional tensions, as has already been seen throughout history, and most recently in regards to diamonds, cobalt, and bauxite.

The report’s key findings show that there are at least 23 key minerals which will be critical to the development and deployment of solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and energy storage technologies. Unfortunately, many of the reserves for these minerals are found in states “perceived to be both fragile and corrupt” according to the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index.

IISD’s interactive map shows where mineral conflicts occur

The IISD has created an interactive map of the world which visualizes in layers the various mineral resources and their reserves, where they are located, and the potential fragility and violence of their locations. Mining these minerals has already, in some cases in both “the past and at present, been linked with local grievances, tensions, and (in the worst cases) violence.”

The authors of the report conclude that, “For the minerals required to make the transition to a low-carbon economy, there are real risks of grievances, tensions and conflicts emerging or continuing around their extraction. In order to meet global goals around sustainable development and climate change mitigation, while contributing to lasting peace, the supply chains of these strategic minerals must be governed in a way that is responsible, accountable and transparent. Achieving this vision will require concerted action from civil society, the private sector and governments.”

Clare Church, IISD Research Officer

It’s worth noting that the corporate world we live in today is not the same that might have turned a blind eye to unethical mining operations and unintended regional consequences. As Clare Church explained to me via email, “Compared to a few decades ago, there is certainly an increased support for avoiding fragility, conflict, and violence in mineral supply chains – in part because it is a reputational risk not to.”

“As awareness about responsible and ethical sourcing grows with both governments and consumers, the private sector is responding. Securing the responsible sourcing of your product – from mine to production to end-of-life – is something corporations must do to “de-risk” their investments.

“This practice has increased in recent years and in many cases industry programmes are the ones driving the process,” Church added.

There is also an obvious comparison to be made between the fossil fuel divestment movement that occupies so much of the big banks’ attention and the growing concern about ethical mining and mineral sourcing. In much the same way that continued investment and reliance upon fossil fuels will continue to increase the risk of stranded assets and lost revenue and investment, so too will continued support and reliance upon unethical mining result in long-term issues for those companies involved.

More so, as Clare Church explains, there are competing concerns within the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals that must be properly balanced. “This question is extremely important, especially considering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs,” Church explained. “As we move to attain the aims set out by SDGs 7 and 13 – for clean water and climate action respectively – it is essential we do so without jeopardizing SDG 16 – for peace, justice, and strong institutions.”

“Like current movements supporting fossil fuels divestment, there is absolutely room for a movement to divest away from businesses and organizations that support regional fragility, conflict, and violence,” Church continued, when I asked her about the comparison. “And there is evidence to support this: demand is coming from both consumers and governments, as well as industry to shift to more responsible supply chains, with an increasing number of companies making efforts to dub their product ‘conflict-free.’”

“And soon, many businesses will have to start making these efforts anyway. The upcoming EU Conflict Mineral Regulation will directly apply to almost 1,000 importers and 500 smelters and refiners of 3TG – whether they are based in the EU or not. Although the identified “green conflict minerals” in our report are not covered by the Regulation, this is a massive first step towards making our mineral supply chains more responsible on an international level.”

Of course, companies like Apple and Google are already making huge strides to move away from reliance upon what can arguably be described as old-fashioned and poorly-managed supply chains that rely less on social responsibility and more on maximizing profit. We saw proof of this in July when Apple launched the $300 million China Clean Energy Fund to partner with its suppliers in enabling them to increase their use of renewable energy. It would not be surprising to see Apple and its corporate peers move quickly to clean up other aspects of their supply chain.

“As a last point to this, one of the things we try to stress in the report is our need to move away from poor supply chain management practices that foster fragility – as opposed to avoiding regions or countries altogether. Avoidance, ultimately, is not the ideal solution,” said Church. “What we need are supply chain best practices that foster peace and sustainability in mineral-rich developing states. Then the mineral wealth will truly benefit the country’s environment and people.

“These demands – from governments, consumers, and industry – are all part of this broader movement to divest from practices that foster regional fragility. The foundations are in place, but there is still a lot of work to be done.”

This article has been republished from Cleantechnica.


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