Argument

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.

A child and a woman break rocks extracted from a cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
A child and a woman break rocks extracted from a cobalt mine in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, on May 23, 2016. JUNIOR KANNAH/AFP via Getty Images

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.

The human rights abuses and environmental degradation in places like Congo do not bode well for the West’s transition to sustainable energy, which will stretch the demand for green energy materials. Some critics even cite such adverse effects of renewable energy production to argue against any transition to green energy, such as in the recent, widely criticized Michael Moore-produced documentary Planet of the Humans—which also pushes the falsehood that manufacturing renewable technology consumes as many fossil fuels as burning them.

Scientific studies conclude that even the production of materials needed to build wind and solar technologies causes far lower emissions than coal or oil. “Fossil fuels are categorically worse at hurting the environment, and even society, than renewables,” said Benjamin Sovacool, a professor of energy policy at the University of Sussex. His research also estimates that fossil fuels are more expensive and environmentally harmful than renewables in the long run.

The question of how to source metals and minerals ethically remains a legitimate and urgent one.

Still, the question of how to source metals and minerals ethically remains a legitimate and urgent one. Policymakers, researchers, and mining industry leaders are now debating how to ensure that the transition to green energy doesn’t exacerbate environmental and social problems elsewhere.

One proposal is to improve the traceability of mining supply chains. At first glance, it makes sense: If manufacturers can achieve transparency from mine to final product, consumers will be able to make ethical purchases and put the “bad guys” out of business. Improved traceability has played an important role in pushing companies toward more ethical conduct. For example, some diamond retailers use blockchain technology as a tamper-proof transaction tracing system to ensure that conflict diamonds do not enter the legitimate supply chain.

But applying this tracing model to something more complex, such as a battery, is more difficult. A battery consists of dozens of materials from factories around the world, each deriving resources from places with disparate environmental and social standards. “If you were to certify that a battery from an electric vehicle was free of child labor, it’s not enough to focus on the facility where they manufactured the battery,” Sovacool said. “You also have to certify that no children were involved when they collected the cobalt, alongside numerous other metals and minerals in supply chains that will change month-to-month based on availability, price, and stability.”

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.

Sovacool and his colleagues call this inequality the “decarbonization divide,” which may widen as the world ramps up renewable energy use. For example, solar energy could meet the global demand for low-carbon energy many times over. But the sheer size of solar panels, which often contain lead, cadmium, and other toxic metals, makes them one the largest global contributors of electronic waste. By 2050, which is the rough expiration date of solar panels manufactured today, the technology is estimated to produce 78 million metric tons of waste—some 80 percent more than the total annual waste from all combined technologies today.

Much of the e-waste generated by the West is sent, sometimes illegally, to countries in Asia or Africa, where a small amount of it is mined for reusable materials and sold back to world markets. This economic opportunity often causes toxic pollution, fueling environmental and public health crises. Many workers at one of the largest e-waste processing sites in Ghana, Agbogbloshie, are children who help dismantle electronic goods, extract metals, and then burn the waste—producing smoke that envelops the surrounding communities. Studies have found high levels of lead in the blood of those living near the processing sites.

Although traceability has a role to play, there is no silver bullet that can solve these problems. There are already international treaties and conventions that aim to solve issues such as child labor, social inequality, environmental degradation, and biodiversity loss. But a recent United Nations review of 80 existing international initiatives that govern the mining sector concluded that they often fail to be enforced by national governments.

Countries with weak governance, such as Congo—where mining companies from all over the world operate—are less likely to take part in such international treaties and practices. There are already rules for environmental protection and social responsibilities in Congo’s mining code, but without adequate enforcement, it is left to mining companies to self-regulate. This structure allows unscrupulous mining companies to exacerbate socioeconomic inequality, violence, and conflict by sourcing resources from illegal miners, displacing communities, and polluting.

Such issues have galvanized a growing global community of anti-mining activists seeking corporate transparency, with some going as far as calling for the complete withdrawal of Western mining companies from developing countries. Others question the utility of this approach. “The risk is that responsible companies pull out and leave the field open to more unscrupulous players,” said Tom Butler, the CEO of the International Council on Mining and Metals, an international organization set up to improve sustainability in the industry.

Corporate sustainability is not enough to address all the ethical issues in the mining supply chain, but some observers pin their hopes on it—fueled by a consumer appetite for sustainable materials.

Butler says that mining companies can sometimes fill the void left by weak governments, building schools, hospitals, roads, and water systems. Mining companies can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent damage to the environment by making operations more resource-efficient. They can also create benefits for people in local communities that extend beyond the lifetime of the mining operation, such as equipping locals with training and education that make them more likely to be hired in the future.

One of the largest mining companies operating in Congo, Switzerland-based Glencore, sources 96 percent of its staff locally across its global operations, and it paid $680 million in wages and benefits in Congo between 2015 and 2018. Similarly, the South Africa-based Gold Fields, which has operations in Ghana, hired 55 percent of its overall staff locally in 2019. For every job created in the mining sector, another 25 are created indirectly through the procurement of goods and services or transport, according to Butler. “So I say if you want to invest where it makes a difference, then a responsible mining company operating in the DRC is a good bet,” he said. (Glencore has recently been accused of facilitating child labor in cobalt mining practices, although the company insists it does not tolerate child or forced labor).

But there is a limit to what corporate social responsibility can achieve. The mining companies are often reluctant to shoulder too much of the responsibility of governments, as it risks undermining local efforts to strengthen communities. Individual companies operating responsibly can’t ensure that others follow the same standards. They also can’t solve the structural issues of poverty and the lack of domestic and international governance that underpin illegal mining, child labor, and the streams of e-waste from the West.

What is needed is collaboration between mining companies and governments and stronger policy.

What is needed is collaboration between mining companies and governments and stronger policies. Though international treaties have limited impact in countries with weak governance, a unified policy that all countries in the mining supply chain agree on could overcome that issue. “What we need is an international protocol that coordinates among existing environmental treaties,” said Saleem Ali, a professor of energy and the environment at the University of Delaware.

Sovacool, Ali, and others have additional policy recommendations to lessen the burden of extractive industries on communities and the environment. Policymakers should ensure that mining companies are at least partially owned by locals, either by including requirements for minimum local ownership into national mining laws or by incentivizing mining companies through tax cuts or other financial benefits. They also recommend that countries consider mining impacts as part of their commitments to existing international treaties, such as the Paris climate accord.

A different set of solutions is needed to tackle the growing pile of e-waste at the end of the green energy supply chain. Today, much solar technology is discarded after it expires rather than being reused due to the cost dynamics of solar markets. Maintaining affordability requires “better design, so that it is easier to repurpose, repower, or recycle components,” Sovacool said.

Governments and major companies have difficult decisions to make, and the window of opportunity for addressing climate change is rapidly closing. While difficult, it is not impossible to convert the world to renewables without exacerbating existing inequalities. But the problem can only be solved through cooperation across the green energy supply chain that incorporates technological and social strategies.

In this way, green energy could be truly sustainable.

Carl-Johan Karlsson is a Swedish freelance journalist based in Paris.

Katarina Zimmer is a freelance science and environmental journalist. Twitter: @katarinazimmer

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