Guest essay by Eric Worrall
As calls for more renewables and a green Covid recovery mount, renewable energy advocates are facing uncomfortable questions about the vast quantities of raw materials required for their green revolution, and allegations of child slave labour which haunt the base of their specialty material supply chains.
Green Energy’s Dirty Side Effects
The global transition to renewables could lead to human rights abuses and risks exacerbating inequalities between the West and the developing world.
Climate change remains one of the most serious threats to the integrity of life on earth. Thankfully, many of the tools needed to stop heating the planet already exist. The use of renewable energy resources is expanding in the West, but the production of electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar cells needs to be scaled up. To source all energy from renewables by 2050—necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius—citizens will need 1 billion additional electric cars and a more than 30-fold increase in solar photovoltaic capacity.
But as economies in the West address the climate crisis—albeit at a painstakingly slow pace—another crisis is worsening elsewhere. Making all those vehicles, panels, and turbines requires resources such as copper, lithium, and cobalt—which, like fossil fuels, are extracted from the ground. But unlike fossil fuels, many raw materials for green energy come disproportionately from developing countries.
In the last few years, cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has trickled into the public consciousness, beginning with a 2016 Amnesty International report that revealed child labor at the country’s nonindustrial mine sites, which provide the cobalt that ends up in smart phones and other devices around the world.
Renewable technologies create ethical issues at both ends of their life cycle. Sovacool was part of a team of researchers who recently visited the two ends of technology supply chains: artisanal cobalt mining sites in Congo, where miners extract the metal using rudimentary tools or their hands, and electronic waste scrapyards in Ghana, a global cemetery for electronics such as solar panels. The team’s findings reveal widespread child labor, the subjugation of ethnic minorities, toxic pollution, biodiversity loss, and gender inequality along the length of the supply chain.
…Read more: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/06/18/green-energy-dirty-side-effects-renewable-transition-climate-change-cobalt-mining-human-rights-inequality/
One thing FP does not make clear is the sheer scale of increased mining activity which would be required to transform the world’s energy systems.
A 2019 world bank report suggested cobalt production for batteries, much of which is produced from often dubious sources in the Congo, would have to be scaled up 1,200% to limit global warming to 2C.
If the world scrambles to embrace renewables, if the demand for Cobalt goes up 1200%, does anyone think the warlords who run many of the Congo’s Cobalt mines will somehow do a better job of looking out for the kids they exploit? Or is it more likely conditions for the kids would get even worse?