Sunday, May 19, 2024

Chapter 7: The law of holes – Mining and climate change

Chapter 7

The law of holes: Mining and climate change

If humanity is to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, it is essential that we decarbonize our economies. This will depend upon the widespread rollout of technologies which are enormously metal- and mineral-intensive. But mining is not without its social and environmental impacts, nor is it free of responsibility for the climate emergency. This chapter assesses to what extent mining may be part of the solution, looking at two metals which will be essential for the energy transition: copper, focusing on the Cordillera del Cóndor, Ecuador; and lithium, focusing on the Salar de Atacama in Chile.

‘The assumption seems to be that mining can be made sustainable, or at least, that it can be reconciled with the demands of sustainable development. But what does this really mean? Is ‘‘sustainable mining’’ not an oxymoron?’

The Salar de Atacama in Chile holds lithium deemed crucial for the energy transition. Credit: Matt Kennard

‘If we were to replace all the UK’s 31.5 million cars and vans with electric vehicles, it would consume the equivalent of 12 per cent of the world’s entire copper output – not to mention three-quarters of global lithium production – for 2018.’

Sara Plaza on the plains below Peine, Argentina, on the ‘Lithium Triangle’ / © Grace Livingstone 2019

‘‘‘Our society needs minerals,’’ says the Brazilian environmental engineer Bruno Milanez, ‘‘but if we’re to move mineral extraction towards something that can be called ‘sustainable development,’ then we need to rethink the scale, the methods, and the pace of extraction, as well as the use and the waste of these materials’’.’

Related articles

Lithium: white gold or curse?

A proposal to start large-scale mining for lithium in Cornwall, UK, raises all the same issues as seen in Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. It's a timely reminder that mining is not just a problem for poorer countries.

Bolivia’s lithium coup

Almost 85 per cent of the world’s lithium reserves are concentrated in the Lithium Triangle along the borderlands of Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. Bolivia’s resources remain largely unexploited. Will Bolivia be able to industrialise Lithium production on its own terms?

Lithium: draining the desert

Peine, Chile and Susques, Argentina – Within minutes of driving out of tourist hotspot San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile you are deep in...

Bolivia: building a state-run lithium industry

Bolivia, which possess 70% of the world's reserves of this strategic metal, is trying to develop its own national industry, while receiving technology from abroad. It's not an easy task, says Emily Achtenberg in an article for NACLA.

Where We Mine: Resource Politics in Latin America

As the drive to expand renewable energy capacity speeds up, there is a rush for lithium and other materials around the world. What will the expansion of rare earth mining in Latin America mean for the indigenous communities and workers who have historically borne the harms of extractivism?

For life and territory

A new report from The Coalition Against the Mining Pandemic examines the long-term harms of mineral extraction during the Covid-19 pandemic


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