The hidden facets of the energy transition
If you have recently bought an electric car, or even just stopped by a local thrift store instead of buying fast-fashion clothes, you probably felt you have made a valuable, if small, contribution to solving the climate crisis. Rightly so, as green technologies are often being promoted as the silver bullet that can keep modern economies’ reliance on consumption going. Unfortunately, this is only one part of the story. Technologies that are pivotal to a successful transition to renewable energies, such as wind turbines, solar panels and battery components require substantial inputs of metals and minerals. These are either rare or concentrated in a few, often fragile regions of our planet. That's why, while people are eager to fuel their cars, there is a risk of fuelling conflicts instead.
Where do the input materials come from?
Many of the key minerals for building electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar plants can be found in Africa and South America, with a small number of middle or low-income countries making up the lion’s share. While this opens promising prospects for local economies, the extraction of resources has often been associated with irresponsible sourcing practices. The forces unleashed by such practices can lead to human rights concerns, support for local corruption networks, and even the financing of armed conflicts. As the international community hopes to stay on track to achieve its climate goals, the demand for these minerals is projected to increase by a whopping 300% or more through 2050, according to the World Bank. And by putting the world’s natural resources under such strain, we risk undermining peace and security in some of the resource-rich countries.
Case 1: Democratic Republic of the Congo: A blessing or a curse?
The DRC is a prime example of how the competition over natural resources and their illegal exploitation can fuel conflict and severely affect the socio-economic development of a country. Its enviable endowment of natural resources includes diamonds, copper, and cobalt. According to different estimates, 60 to 80% of the world’s cobalt comes from the DRC due to its wide use in batteries of electric vehicles. Though rich in resources, the DRC is still one of the poorest countries in the world. Both historical and contemporary research has shown that the DRC's abundance in resources is one of the major driving forces behind its extensive conflicts. Over the years, the DRC's mining regions have been subject to large-scale looting. This is being carried out by a large number of actors ranging from local rebel groups to foreign militias, with the purpose of illegally exporting the country's minerals. The revenues obtained from these illegal exports are in turn used to finance the armed groups' activities. It’s therefore a vicious cycle of conflict that harms the local population instead of helping them.
Prospects for the DRC’s future
An estimated 160 armed groups are active in the eastern DRC today, particularly in the Ituri, Kasai, and Kivu regions. Considering that demand for cobalt is projected to grow fourfold by 2030 due to its wide use in batteries of electric vehicles, the rising profitability of its extraction will likely do nothing but bolster the armed groups' greed and power in the future. The ongoing fight over the control of mining sites between these groups and the DRC's official military units makes it difficult to manage the country's natural resources for the benefit of the general and often impoverished public. Whilst the whole planet rightly aspires to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to ensure a liveable world for future generations, these efforts should not divert the attention from trying to make the world a better place right now as well.
Case 2: Chile’s social crisis
Another resource-rich country is certainly a far-cry away from the instability the DRC has struggled with over the past few decades. However, Chile has recently had its share of challenges as well, so it deserves a closer look. Chile is by far the largest exporter of copper worldwide, with an impressive share of about 30% of global supply. Considering that a fully electric car requires approximately 5 times the amount of copper used in a traditional combustion vehicle, the demand for copper from the car industry alone can be expected to double within the next two decades. Unfortunately, the competition over Chile's natural resources has contributed to some tensions within the country. Continued exploitation of the country's natural resources created great benefits for only a few members of society, exacerbating Chile's long-standing inequalities. This has been among the key reasons for discontent that triggered the 2019-2020 protests in various Chilean cities.
Chile’s ‘Lithium Triangle’
Meanwhile in the country’s rural areas, indigenous collectives are fighting to preserve Atacama’s salt flats and wetlands from some of the problems caused by lithium extraction. The 'lithium triangle' stretches over tens of thousands of square miles and comprises parts of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. Just like copper, lithium is essential for powering batteries used in electric vehicles, with an estimated 8 kg of lithium being used for only one car battery pack. The continued mining of lithium severely disrupts water availability of the region and threatens people's livelihoods. For now, the fight is mostly waged through lawsuits and non-violent actions. However, when people’s land and livelihoods are threatened, and resource-rich areas are located in borderlands, tensions can boil over quickly. As the demand for lithium skyrockets and the mining activities in the region expand, there is a very real risk that tensions in Chile become even more palpable.
The global response is already here
The future is not as gloomy as it might seem. It would be easy to be cynical, but when looking at some global initiatives aimed at ensuring a better world for future generations, we can be more optimistic about our environmental future. The world has come together on both international and national levels: Around 120 countries have pledged to achieve net zero emission by 2050. And the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter, China, has committed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The progress that has been made in the last decade shows that we should certainly not lose hope in our ability to repair the planet just yet.
If you liked this article, you can subscribe to our monthly magazine here with one click: