Net zero warning as the staggering true cost of going green is revealed
Roughly 80 miles off the coast of Yorkshire, the new generation of offshore wind turbines being built at Dogger Bank will be taller than some skyscrapers.
Along with masses of solar panels and electric cars, these feats of human engineering will become the backbone of a new, green economy that will emerge as we abandon fossil fuels.
Yet as we embrace net zero carbon emissions in the name of saving the planet, growing tensions are emerging over what must be done to achieve this goal.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the World Bank, the switch to “cleaner” renewable energy sources is going to require an unprecedented surge in the extraction of precious minerals from the earth.
Whether it is lithium and cobalt needed for batteries, or rare earth elements used for magnets that power wind turbines and electric car motors, we simply can’t make the green technologies we need without them.
Yet campaigners and researchers warn that the mines producing these minerals raise troubling environmental questions of their own, with the worst examples ravaging landscapes, polluting water supplies and desolating crops. The industry also poses geopolitical challenges for Britain and its allies, with China currently dominating the supply chains.
It means that without drastic improvements to global standards and greater engagement by the West, the switch to clean power risks becoming very dirty indeed.
Henry Sanderson, a business journalist and author of Volt Rush, a book that examines the complicated issues surrounding transition minerals, believes that overcoming these contradictions is one of the biggest challenges facing businesses and policymakers.
“Mining has an impact. And often local communities don’t want it,” he says. “So how do you reconcile those facts with the fact we need mining for clean energy technologies?
“It is a hard question to answer. But we are seeing a lot of these trade-offs come up now.
“And if we don’t want other countries to control the green transition, we need to grapple with and grasp these issues.”
‘Explosion’ of mining
The sheer quantity of minerals and metals needed for the green revolution – which entails the widespread electrification of transport and energy production – is staggering.
Minerals such as lithium, cobalt and nickel will go into batteries that store electricity and power billions of electric cars. Copper will be required for new power lines needed everywhere. Rare earth metals will be used to make magnets that are vital for the spinning parts in wind turbines and electric motors.
What’s more, they will be needed in much bigger quantities than ever before. Whereas a conventional car uses about 34kg of minerals, an electric car requires 207kg, or six times as much, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
Meanwhile, a typical offshore wind turbine requires 13 times more minerals than a gas-fired power plant for each megawatt of capacity.
The IEA predicts this will cause demand for critical minerals to soar to 42.3m tonnes per year by 2050 – up from around 7m tonnes in 2020.
Per Kalvig, an expert at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, says this will require an “explosion” of mining in the coming years.
“They’re necessary for wind turbines, for electric vehicles. Europe needs these minerals, and it doesn’t want to continue relying on China to produce them”, he explains.
It is prompting difficult questions for the EU, which believes it will need five times as much rare earth minerals by 2030, a meteoric rise that will require a correspondingly rapid increase in extraction.
Whether the practice of actually mining the materials will be permitted within the bloc is another matter, however.
Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission vice president, has said there are 11 potentially viable lithium projects in Europe and that if they all become operational they could meet nearly two-fifths of EU demand by 2030. They include sites in Finland, Spain, Portugal, Serbia, the Czech Republic and Austria.
But in Portugal, for example, where large lithium resources exist, there has been persistent opposition from local communities against new mining schemes.
British company Savannah is among those trying to open a project in the northern region of Barroso by 2025 with EU funding. It plans to produce about 5,000 tons of lithium a year.
But despite the company’s protestations that it has been “specifically designed to minimise its impact on the natural environment and local communities wherever possible” – such as new ways of storing waste and recycling 85pc of its water – it has struggled to persuade naysayers.
In Sweden too, where Europe’s biggest ever discovery of rare earth oxides was recently made, progress is proving tricky.
Miner LKAB wants to start producing but needs to secure a string of permits. Meanwhile, a court battle is ongoing over the revocation of a licence in 2016, amid concerns that operations in Norra Karr, in the south of Sweden, were polluting local water supplies.
Given the strength of feeling in communities, Kalvig is doubtful there is the political will in Europe to push through many domestic mining schemes.
“Generally, we experience public resistance against mining projects,” he adds.
But if Europe is unwilling to extract minerals itself for the green transition, it will simply need to import them from somewhere else – and typically, that means Africa and Asia.
A handful of countries currently produce more than three quarters of the world’s supply of critical minerals and rare earth metals – with China chief among them.
The Democratic Republic of Congo was responsible for 70pc of global cobalt production in 2019, for example, while China produced 60pc of the rare earth metals.
Crucially, China dominates refining, with its plants processing 90pc of rare earth metals, between 50pc and 70pc of lithium and cobalt and 35pc of nickel. With the help of generous state subsidies, Chinese companies have spent years snapping up mines in other countries too, from Australia to Chile, the DRC and Indonesia, to further entrench their positions.
It means the question of how far governments are willing to go is not only domestic in nature but geopolitical as well. This is why some are examining the potential of mineral extraction from the sea bed – despite loud protestations from environmental groups.
While China has raced ahead producing critical minerals since the 1980s, the country also presents a cautionary tale of environmental destruction as well.
Lax oversight and poor standards have blighted landscapes and cost rural residents their lives, saddling provincial governments with massive cleanup operations in recent years.
Some of the most visible damage has been in Inner Mongolia, where local media described fields of wheat and corn “carpeted in black dust”, brown-coloured rivers and unusually high numbers of deaths in what became known as “cancer villages” near the mines.
Every year, millions of tonnes of toxic waste was discharged into a 10km wide lake not far from the Yellow River – leading to fears it could poison a source of drinking water used by 150m people.
But worryingly, as Beijing now cracks down on mineral mining at home, it is exporting these same toxic practices elsewhere.
In neighbouring Myanmar, parts of the mountainous area known as Kachin already resemble the ravaged wastelands in China.
There, violent militias – with the blessing of the military junta that usurped Aung San Suu Kyi’s government in 2021 – have set up a string of illegal rare earth mines, pock-marking the landscape with bright blue chemical pools, an investigation by the charity Global Witness found.
In a crude and ecologically devastating process, they remove vegetation, drill holes into mountains and inject an acidic solution to effectively liquidate the earth. This is then drained into chemical pools where the liquid evaporates, leaving behind the minerals.
Once the process is finished, the site is abandoned and the militias simply move on, starting all over again in a new location.
Just a few years ago, there were only a handful of these mines. But since then, satellite imagery has revealed hundreds of them – with nearly 3,000 pools recorded across an area the size of Singapore as recently as five months ago.
The militia operations are being bankrolled by Chinese businesses, Global Witness claims, and have quickly turned Myanmar into one of the biggest rare earth minerals producers globally.
The price for local people has been poisoned water, chemically-blighted crops and a growing threat of landslides, with experts concerned that the mountains could collapse.
“We found that most of them [companies] are going to China for the production of magnets in green energy technologies, like wind turbines and electric vehicles,” says Hanna Hindstrom, a senior campaigner at Global Witness.
“Of course, it’s a great irony. Because although these technologies are essential to the green energy transition, we are fuelling demand for mining that is causing environmental destruction.
“What we’re seeing in Myanmar is probably the most egregious example of how it could be done, because there’s no environmental regulation, no enforcement, nothing – and no cleanup afterwards.
“It is an inherently dirty business.”
Even in places where mining is done legally, the industry’s reputation is chequered.
Glencore, the FTSE 100 miner, was ordered by a High Court judge to pay £280m in fines and costs in November after pleading guilty to a sprawling bribery scheme in Nigeria, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea and South Sudan.
Meanwhile, BHP, the world’s largest mining company, is battling the biggest group claim in British legal history after the collapse of a dam in southeastern Brazil spewed toxic mud and water over the landscape and residents.
Industry figures say that efforts are constantly under way to improve standards and make modern mining more efficient – but there remain inescapable drawbacks.
The process involves digging up large amounts of earth – which may only be 1pc lithium, cobalt or another kind of metal – crushing it into fine sand, then using chemicals to extract the target minerals.
Anything left over at the end is waste, known as “tailings” in trade jargon. This can be a mix of earth, chemicals, minerals and water – and can often be toxic or even radioactive.
What mining companies do with this sludge varies around the world. Some still dump tailings into the nearest water source – as has been done in China and Indonesia – but more standard practice today is to create tailing dams.
However, research has found that one in 100 tailing dams fail, largely due to poor maintenance and monitoring. The comparable figure for water dams is one in 10,000.
Gawen Jenkin, a geology professor at Leicester University, describes tailing dam failures as “appalling” and warns that they have “catastrophic” consequences for the environment and communities.
“We simply have to do better, if we are going to produce these metals at this scale,” he says.
Beyond environmental issues, mining can also take a terrible toll on workers. In the DRC, tens of thousands of children are pressed into working in dangerous, small mines, while research published in medical journal The Lancet has found that labourers working in the African “copperbelt” were at higher risk of having children with birth defects.
At the same time, the degree to which communities truly benefit is up for debate. Big mining projects do indisputably bring jobs, wages and development.
But Gavin Hilson, a professor at Surrey University, says smaller local operations – known as “artisanal miners” – are often muscled out by big multinational corporations in developing countries where state corruption is rife and officials tend to prefer quick wins.
“You just can’t have a conversation with these governments about how if we formalise small scale mining and support them, down the road you’ll be in a position to tax them. They don’t want to hear that,” he says, citing years of field research.
“They want to see the large mining companies come in and set up shop, because then they get revenue from permit fees, from royalties, as well as from exploration companies whose work facilitates or leads to that mine being opened.
“All of that provides instantaneous revenue that can also be renewed.”
The London Mining Network, which monitors Glencore, Rio Tinto, Anglo-American and other miners listed on the London Stock Exchange, argues that the coming “wave of green extractivism” risks “reproducing the same dynamics and practices that caused the climate crisis in the first place”.
“Mining projects increase the threat that an unstable climate already poses,” a report by the group says.
Treasure in the desert
The arid plains of west Texas seem like the furthest place in the world from an ocean.
And yet this lunar-like landscape was once at the bottom of the sea, a huge glittering mass that stretched from the New Mexico border to the southern tip of the state forming what is now called the Permian Basin.
The fossilised remains of the organisms that inhabited this ocean 250 million years ago – now forming oil and gas reserves – have already brought vast wealth to this part of Texas. Nearly one in 10 barrels of oil produced globally come from the Permian field alone.
But Anthony Marchese, chairman of Texas Mineral Resources, thinks the landscape could hold yet more treasure still. His company hopes to develop one of North America’s largest rare earth mineral mines at Round Top mountain, 85 miles east of El Paso.
Marchese believes there is a huge and growing gap in US supply chains for rare earth minerals mined on domestic soil.
His scheme is one of several cropping up across the West, as American and European companies turn their hands once again to the kinds of mining and mineral processing activities that have not been done domestically for decades.
Another mine is already operational at Mountain Pass – the only one of its kind in North America, an hour’s drive from Las Vegas – where JHL Capital Group is extracting neodymium and praseodymium, two metals used to make magnets for electric vehicle powertrains.
There, Joe Biden’s administration has also provided federal funding to ensure a minerals processing facility is established nearby. Other similar initiatives are being pushed with money unlocked through the mammoth – and deceptively-named – Inflation Reduction Act.
In Marchese’s opinion, China’s grip on the market has left the US vulnerable – unable to independently produce even the materials needed for F-35 fighter jets and radar systems. But he acknowledges that ramping up domestic mining will be controversial too.
“It’s a very touchy political issue,” he says. “On the one hand you have a tremendous need for the material. And on the other hand, people don’t want mining of any kind in this country.”
Marchese says that the methods his company uses for mining are far less environmentally damaging then those used in China, and that in the US they are governed by the strictest environmental standards in the world. “If this stuff has to be produced, surely we should produce it here?” he says.
A similar ethos underpins proposals to establish minerals processing facilities in the UK, where multiple projects are progressing. Among the vanguard hoping to break our dependence on Beijing is Pensana, which is building a £125m rare earth minerals processing plant at the Port of Hull in Yorkshire.
Paul Atherley, the company’s chairman, who is also chairing a scheme to establish lithium refining in Teesside, says Pensana’s feedstock will come from a mine in Longonjo, western Angola. He is also seeking to source lithium from Australia for his other company.
“What we’re arguing is that Australia, and South America and Africa should be doing what they are good at, which is mining and the extraction phase. And the processing should be done in Europe, in UK chemical parks hooked up to offshore wind, so we create these independent and sustainable supply chains, independent of China, so we can be absolutely sure about how it’s mined and how it’s processed.”
Many people in the mining industry also speak evangelically about the potential for recycling materials from existing electronics and batteries. Although the point at which a so-called infinite loop – a holy grail situation where all the material can be recovered – is still some time away. Glencore, which counts Tesla, BMW and Samsung among its customers, already has a huge lithium recycling business in North America, a spokesman noted.
Leicester University’s Jenkin says the mining sector is also working to improve the efficiency of processes and reduce the need for harmful chemicals. He has just returned from a trip to the Philippines where he has been helping to extract more useful minerals from tailings than before.
Even further into the future, he says scientists could develop chemical solutions that are harmless for the environment and even methods to extract ore that require circulating liquid through the ground rather than disturbing large amounts of earth.
“There are good sides,” he says. “The standards are ever-improving. And mining provides income to local economies, to national economies. There’s a nuanced debate that people need to have about this – but often it becomes very polarised and it just becomes ‘mining bad’.”
Sanderson too is hopeful about efforts to overhaul the murkier practices in green technology supply chains, arguing that businesses will come under more and more pressure from consumers to clean up their acts. Some efforts are already under way to create a global “battery passport” that would ensure supply chains are transparent and meet the same standards.
“Green products should have clean supply chains, because, by nature, they are supposed to be good for the environment,” Sanderson adds.
“For many years, most consumers were completely blind about how things got made and where the materials came from.
“But we are moving to a greater awareness. And there’s now a strong link between electric vehicle manufacturers and the mining industry – and EV producers do not want to wake up and see the minerals they are using splashed across the front pages or in an Amnesty International report.
“So there are strong incentives – if miners want to be part of the supply chain – to clean up.”