Before a solar panel can be installed on a roof or an electric bus can hit the streets, manufacturers first have to get their hands on key metals and minerals. But to meet the demands of the transition away from fossil fuels, experts say more sustainable approaches are needed to minimize the effects the mining industry can have on the planet, people and their communities.
The question of how to pull off this balancing act is one of the many topics that world leaders, policymakers, researchers and others will discuss at the ongoing COP28 climate conference in Dubai.
“We are going to need to mine more to mitigate climate change,” said Scott Odell, a visiting assistant professor at the George Washington University and visiting scientist in MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative. “But mining has its own social [and] environmental impacts we have to be concerned about.”
Minerals that have been mined from the earth are key components of modern technology, from the electrical wires in your walls to the cellphone in your pocket. Copper, lithium, cobalt and nickel are just some metals from a long list of mined resources that power cleaner technologies.
But those items come at a cost. Mining operations both past and present have been tied to widespread, enduring environmental contamination and human health hazards.
In order to curb planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change, experts are urging policymakers to swap oil and gas for renewables, bolster electric transit and take other steps to swiftly decarbonize the global economy. That makes more mining inevitable.
In fact, clean energy options typically require more minerals than their fossil-fueled counterparts, according to the International Energy Agency. The agency notes that onshore wind plants, for example, need nine times as many of these resources as gas-powered plants.
The bulk of mining for these materials happens outside the United States in communities that often have a complicated relationship with the industry. Mines bring jobs, but they can also lead to local pollution or devastating accidents, and workers can be subjected to myriad human rights abuses.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is the world’s largest producer of cobalt, a high-demand metal used in lithium-ion batteries that power products like laptops, mobile phones and electric vehicles. The mining industry that extracts this resource in that country is known to utilize child labor and impose working conditions that have been likened to slavery. Mining cobalt also results in local environmental degradation, including water pollution and habitat loss.
Experts say it’s crucial to figure out how we can mine more responsibly and efficiently to meet the needs of the clean energy transition, and some note that part of the answer also requires consumers to think more critically about their energy demands.
Here’s a look at what metal mining entails, and what researchers say we can be doing more to minimize its social and ecological consequences.
How metal mining affects the environment
When our ancestors began making metal tools around 7,000 years ago, this technological advancement spurred humanity’s “oldest form of pollution,” said Mark Macklin, a professor and co-director of the Lincoln Center for Water and Planetary Health at the University of Lincoln in England. That’s because each step of mining and processing those metals released new contaminants into the environment.
While the inherent tradeoff of pollution endures, all these millennia later, mining operations have changed a lot. Different materials require different approaches, but Odell offered the example of modern-day copper mines as a case study.
He noted that copper has and will continue to be used across all kinds of technologies since it’s a good conductor of electricity and relatively abundant, which makes it affordable. Chile produces the bulk of the world’s copper — 27 percent — while the U.S. produces just 6 percent, according to the World Economic Forum.
“The main reason we use copper in the clean energy transition is the reason we use it for everything else, too,” Odell said.
At these mines, workers dig as deep as necessary to locate an ore deposit, setting aside the earth they had to remove to get to it. They then extract the metallic material that will later be transformed into pure copper.
Workers start processing that ore on-site, which requires the use of hazardous chemicals. After that, Odell said, the material is shipped elsewhere to be smelted, an energy-intensive, carbon-emitting process that involves burning away everything that isn’t copper.
Odell noted that mine workers spray water to reduce the amount of dust that could otherwise make its way from the mining site to contaminate local agricultural fields or water sources with heavy metals. He said this potential for contamination, plus the significant water use, is a frequent source of conflict between mining operations and the communities they border.
Furthermore, the waste generated by the mining operation — including the chemicals used during on-site processing — has to be stored somewhere. Structures called tailings dams are built with the intention of containing that waste indefinitely. But when they fail, the consequences have devastating impacts for local communities and the environment.
“If the mine lasts 60 years, you’re going to have tailings left there for hundreds of years, and somebody needs to manage that,” Odell said.
A legacy of contamination
Active mines come with many risks, but Macklin’s research suggests that inactive or legacy mines can pose an even greater threat to the environment.
Prior to modern regulations, waste was discharged into nearby waterways, turning local river systems into contamination sites, he said.
Trace contaminants like lead or arsenic traveled downstream and settled in the sediment. In some cases, those metal concentrations remain unsafe for human and environmental health today.
“Once you pollute those floodplains, you in effect pollute them forever,” Macklin said. Globally, an estimated 23 million people live on floodplains that, due to active or legacy mining, are “affected by potentially dangerous concentrations of toxic waste,” according to a recent study that he and his team conducted.
Flooding is one of several extreme weather events that are becoming more common due to climate change. When contaminant-polluted rivers flood, Macklin said, the sediment that holds them can wash over the banks and into the plants and soil beyond.
That’s bad news for livestock farmers who want to let their animals graze on those plants, or people who want to grow crops in that soil. Once sediment is polluted, he explained, there’s virtually no safe way to clean it up.
Macklin said that industrialized countries that believe pollution resulting from long-inactive mining operations is only in their past misunderstand the true toll.
“There’s been a degree of … smugness in the Global North in terms of, ‘Yes, we polluted our river systems 100 years ago, and we’ve learned from that,'” he said. “Actually, we learned nothing at all. And unfortunately, because of climate change, this is coming back to bite us on the backside in a way which is completely unexpected.”
Today, more than half of projects that would extract minerals for clean energy technologies are on or near Indigenous land, according to a study from the University of Queensland.
“We need to recognize that the mining that we’re using to solve climate change is also putting vulnerable communities at risk,” Odell said, noting that Indigenous communities are among those who already face disproportionate challenges due to climate change.
Current and future mining projects can do better, but experts say doing so will take careful planning.
Metal mining moving forward
Many people aren’t aware of the ecological implications of producing the goods we use in general, noted Corby Anderson, associate director of the Kroll Institute for Extractive Metallurgy at the Colorado School of Mines.
“Whenever humans engage in any activity on the Earth — be it agriculture or mining or you name it — somehow, the earth becomes involved and the earth gets changed,” Anderson said. “And it’s a matter of, socially, what do we accept, or what don’t we?”
In places like the U.S., consumers are largely geographically removed from any social or environmental toll caused by the mining operations that make possible their technologies of choice.
The domestic mining industry would be keen to open new operations on U.S. soil where possible, Anderson said. But he pointed to negative public opinion on mining, lengthy permitting processes and a lack of skilled professionals as factors that curtail the industry’s ability to expand in this country.
If the U.S. doesn’t pursue more domestic mining and processing, the nation will remain primarily dependent on imported resources used to manufacture green technologies, plus imports of those products themselves, Anderson said.
“We have very good social and environmental practices” in the U.S., so it makes sense to Anderson to develop more mining and processing capacity, he wrote in an email. He added that remaining dependent on other non-ally countries for that material creates “unneeded risks for the survival of our democratic society.”
Odell agrees that the strength of government regulation and environmental analysis does position the U.S. to mine better than some of its international counterparts. He also noted that, given the degree to which the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions have contributed to climate change, it makes sense to absorb a fairer share of the impact of metal production for clean technologies.
But Odell added that given how rapidly scientists say we need to reduce carbon emissions to keep the planet from warming even further, the U.S. doesn’t have time to ramp up domestic mining and meet its own clean energy goals. Opening new mining operations takes years, he said, which means the country will for now inevitably remain largely dependent on imported resources.
“Right now, today, we should be improving our mining regulations and trying to advance our mining for the longer term,” he said. “But in the short term, we can’t ignore that we’re going to need to be getting those from other countries.”
To understand what future contamination would look like from new projects, Macklin said that the model he and his colleagues have developed to map legacy mining contamination could be useful. Contaminant release of some kind is inevitable due to forces like human error, he noted, but companies could use that model to understand the potential damage ahead of time.
His team is also working on modeling future flooding scenarios. By predicting how historic floodplains might grow or shrink as the planet warms, it could help them understand what legacy contamination spread would look like in the context of climate change.
Experts say these steps and others, like ramping up recycling infrastructure so that metals can be more easily and efficiently reused, are key to implementing a more sustainable industry approach that can still meet the technological needs of our society moving forward. But Odell emphasized that simply swapping the old for the new won’t cut it.
He said it’s important to consider ways to lower energy use, rather than trying to power our existing lifestyles with renewables. Improving public transit, making cities more walkable and bikeable, and investing in other social policy and infrastructure projects, he added, could all help reduce energy consumption and, by extension, demands for mined metals.
“Do we need to replace all the energy that we use now just with clean energy, or can we find ways to be more efficient with our energy use overall?” Odell said.
Source: PBS News Hour