By Clare Church, Research Officer with International Institute for Sustainable Development.
The gold in our watches, the diamonds in our rings, the tin in our smartphones – all have been classified as conflict minerals, due to their role in funding armed groups and incentivizing human rights abuses in fragile states.
But what about the metals and minerals found in our solar panels, wind turbines, or electric vehicles?
Many of the minerals central to green energy technologies – including cobalt, rare earths and lithium – are found in high concentrations in states struggling with fragility, weak governance, and corruption. Increased demand for these minerals in order to meet the needs of the low carbon economy has already placed intense pressure on some mining sites, aggravating local grievances and fueling violence.
As demand for green energy technologies continues to surge, it is essential that the minerals used to develop and deploy these technologies are sourced in a way that supports peace and sustainable development. Failing to do so runs the risk of dirtying the supply chains of the clean energy systems vital to the low-carbon transition.
Cobalt, for example, is critical to the development of electric vehicles and energy storage technologies, and is found in three out of the four major lithium-ion batteries on the market. More than 56 per cent of cobalt reserves, however, are found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – a country plagued with chronic violence and instability.
DRC is one of the world’s most resource-rich nations. But, as has been well documented, this wealth that has yet to translate into longer-term, sustainable development gains for its population. The country hosts some of the world’s largest reserves of tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold (3TG), which are among the most notorious conflict minerals. When mined in a context of fragility and corruption, the exploitation of these minerals has funded the continued activities of armed groups at a cost of appalling human suffering, including sexual violence, child labour, and death.
The mining of cobalt in the DRC has already been tied to some of the same exploitative and violent practices seen in the mining of 3TG. In 2016, Amnesty International found that some cobalt miners in the country were exposed to harmful chemicals, lacked protective equipment, were subject to violence, and were victims of extortion by state officials. The report also found that some cobalt operations in the south of the country employed children for less than $2 per day.
Unlike 3TG however, cobalt is not explicitly included in effective legislation concerning conflict minerals, most notably the US’ Dodd-Frank Act Section 1502 and the upcoming EU Conflict Mineral Regulation.
Lithium – a mineral found in electric vehicles and energy storage technologies – is also notably absent from global conflict mineral conversations. About 60 per cent of the world’s lithium reserves are found in the ‘Lithium Triangle’: the border region between Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia. Lithium mining in this region, however, requires massive amounts of water – a major source of grievance for surrounding communities in an already water-stressed region. Nearby, Brazil is currently the world’s seventh largest producer of Lithium and has more reserves than production, making expectations long-term there for the industry.
Just south of San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, a number of public demonstrations have broken out in opposition to proposed extensions of existing mining operations. Similar grievances tied to water usage have also been expressed near Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and in the province of Jujuy, Argentina.
Lithium demand is only expected to accelerate. Some estimates suggest that demand will surpass global supply by 2023 – driving prices to an unprecedent level. A failure to engage local communities in the responsible extraction of lithium could exacerbate already heated tensions and threaten the global supply chains of critical green energy technologies.
Beyond cobalt and lithium, there are a number of other minerals that are crucial to the development of solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and energy storage technologies. These include base metals like copper, nickel, and iron; precious metals like silver and tellurium; and rare earths. All are found in high concentrations in states struggling with fragility and corruption.
Approximately 28 per cent of bauxite and alumina reserves– required for all listed green energy technologies – are found, for example, in very fragile states, as defined by the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index. Similarly, almost 100 per cent of chromium and graphite reserves – critical for wind technologies and energy storage – are found in states with mid to high levels of corruption, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
Mineral recycling and substitution have the potential to relieve some of this pressure on extraction operations in resource-rich fragile states. However, most of the minerals in question continue to have poor end of life collection and recycling rates. It is unclear if these processes will sufficiently develop in time to help meet the predicted, growing demand for these minerals.
Progress has been made in curbing the illegal flow of conflict minerals like diamonds, gold, and tin. It is now imperative that civil society groups, the private sector, and governments work together to build off of these successes and apply their lessons togreen energy supply chains. This will include stronger efforts to empower local communities, ensure conflict-free supply chains, and promote transparent and accountable mining practices. Only then will the transition to a low-carbon economy be truly green, clean, and conflict-free.