When you’re in a hole, you have to stop digging.
A new and thorny environmental debate is breaking into mainstream conversations about climate breakdown.
We are going to need a vast supply of ‘transition minerals' like lithium and nickel - used in everything from wind turbines to solar panels to electric vehicles - if we are to papidly accelerate our switch to renewable energy.
Obtaining enough of these minerals while scaling up supply to meet rapidly growing demand represents a serious potential bottleneck in achieving global climate targets. How will we get these minerals and metals - and can we get them quickly enough?
This discussion has moved from activist and academic meeting rooms to the Washington DC, Beijing and Brussels. And mining corporations, ever-alert for a profit-making opportunity, have begun presenting themselves as our climate saviours.
Clean, green, sustainable, responsible mining, they say, will deliver the materials we need to meet our climate commitments. Policymakers have largely accepted the mining industry’s presentation of itself in these glowing terms.
Critical minerals task forces and industrial alliances are proliferating among wealthy nations. The aim is finding ways to secure supply. Governments around the world - both in the Global South and the North - are competing to attract foreign mining investment, often linked to the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
For anyone who cares about climate justice, this is not good news.
Industrial-scale mining is synonymous with a long history of colonialism, oppression and ecological devastation. The industry has an appalling human rights record to this day where frontline communities and workers are concerned.
And mining is consistently ranked as the world’s deadliest industry for those who oppose it.
Mining is also a fossil fuel intensive industry that destroys ecosystems and biodiversity that play a vital role in how our climate system functions.
In fact, the climate impacts of biodiversity loss and destruction caused by mining could effectively cancel out any benefits in terms of the climate mitigation enabled by increased renewable capacity delivered through an unplanned, business-as-usual scenario of transition mineral mining expansion.
In short, a transition to renewables that relies on dirty mining is not really a transition at all. It’s not even a necessary evil, as some argue.
‘Green extractivism’- the idea that human rights and ecosystems can be sacrificed to mining in the name of ‘solving’ climate breakdown - is unjust. And it will fail on its own terms: likely contributing to, rather than halting, runaway climate breakdown.
But how can we source the transition minerals we genuinely need to move away from planet-wrecking fossil fuels if massive mining expansion is a climate own-goal?
A new report A Material Transition: exploring supply and demand solutions for renewable energy minerals from War on Want seeks to answer this question, pointing out pathways to a truly circular, post-extractive society that is aligned with existing climate justice demands.
The report argues that both supply-side and demand-side solutions are necessary to mitigate harm caused by the mining of transition minerals and also to ensure as little new mining as possible needs to happen.
These solutions can be grouped into three main categories: international solidarity with those impacted by transition minerals; fair and just global supply chains for renewable energy technologies; societal transformations to reduce unsustainable material consumption.
A Material Transition argues that the concepts of a just transition and a just recovery cannot stop at worker and national priorities but must extend to frontline communities.
The solutions start by addressing the chronic imbalance of power that currently exists between mining corporations, states and the communities and ecosystems they seek to sacrifice for mining.
Around the world, mining-affected communities rarely enjoy meaningful, mandatory rights to consultation and consent.
A just transition must therefore ensure that communities, especially Indigenous communities, are able to assert their right to free, prior and informed consent over whether, or how, extraction can take place.
This includes a democratic right to say no to unwanted or unacceptable projects as a vital check on corporate power.
Discussions about ensuring human rights are respected throughout mineral supply chains - from extraction to sale of EVs and gadgets - are ongoing.
There are some positive signs that investors and end-users of transition minerals - such as battery or electric vehicle manufacturers - will take steps to eradicate human rights and environmental violations in their supply chains.
However, there is an urgent need to improve, consolidate and coordinate the many supply chain due diligence schemes around the world to ensure strong minimum standards are met.
These minimum standards ought to be mandatory, not a matter of corporate self governance, say the authors, pointing to the failure of corporate-led multi-stakeholder initiatives that have marginalised communities and failed to meet their goals.
Green extractivism approaches to sourcing the minerals and metals crucial for the just transition are presented as innovations, but in reality they leave intact old and dangerous assumptions about how this transition should take place.
Chief amongst these assumptions is the idea that we can keep growing the global economy and ‘de-couple’ that growth from environmental impacts.
This so-called ‘green growth’ is the centrepiece of most progressive visions for a green new deal, but it ignores strong evidence that ‘absolute decoupling’, where impacts go down or plataux as growth goes up, is not possible on a global scale.
There is huge potential to increase the amount of minerals and metals that are recycled and to extract them from mining waste and landfill in high concentrations.
But these measures will only gain real, lasting significance when freed from the operating logic of so-called green growth.
The real hope, as A Material Transition points out, lies in tackling rich nations’ gross overconsumption of both minerals and metals and energy.
Re-aligning these economies away from just economic growth, making them more circular, less wasteful and more focused on well-being, can help drastically reduce the need for destructive new mining.
It can also open some breathing space for other nations in the Global South to re-orientate their economies away from extractivism, raise standards of living and define their own development pathways.
A prominent energy analyst has described the clashing worlds of mining and clean energy as an “intrinsic conflict” in Joe Biden’s newly unveiled multi-billion dollar climate change plans. He argued in a recent article: "There's got to be a first thing and a second thing, and right now it looks like climate is the first thing."
A Material Transition’s message is that we cannot afford to follow this siloed logic and treat climate breakdown as separate from the other ecological and social crises and inequities of our time. We won't solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.
The climate crisis is part of a deeper ecological crisis: the loss of biodiversity, widespread pollution, land and water shortages. These environmental crises, combined with social injustices and inequalities, and compounded by the pandemic, have intensified political volatility and ongoing human rights violations, with a significant impact on human health.
To focus only on the energy transition ignores the fact that we need to take into account all of the materials involved, so that what we need is a materials transition. In the words of Nigerian activist and poet, Nnimmo Bassey: “When you’re in a hole, you have to stop digging.”
Hannibal Rhoades is head of communications for The Gaia Foundation. Andy Whitmore is the author of A Materials Transition, co-chair of the London Mining Network and finance advocacy officer for the Deep Sea Mining Campaign.