Chile’s new leftist government faces a dilemma that could undermine the ‘green revolution’

Jan 6, 2022 | 7 comments

By Emanuele Ottolenghi

Chileans recently elected Gabriel Boric, a young, former social justice student activist, as president. He is the most left-wing politician to run the country since Salvador Allende. Much like his progressive millennial peers across the globe, Boric is committed to fighting climate change and advancing social justice. But don’t expect the green revolution in Chile to be like California’s. Chile is the home of vast deposits of lithium and copper, the minerals that are powering the green revolution. To go green here, we must dig there.

As The New York Times‘ Dean Murphy put it, “producing green vehicles means ‘fueling clean energy with a dirty industry.'” In practice, to achieve zero-net emission for the cars we drive in the post-industrial, hyper-environmentally conscious, wealthy world imagined by those who want to replace the carbon-fossil industry with electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels, we need to turn the poor, developing, but minerals’ rich south of the planet into a giant open pit. “Mining isn’t necessarily clean” Murphy said. Chile’s President-elect Boric agrees.

To power the “green revolution” countries like Chile will need to allow open pit mining to continue.

That is why he intends to shut down the $2.5 billion Dominga Mine project. If the project continues, it will eventually produce 12 million tons of iron ore and 150,000 tons of copper concentrate per year. But this open-pit project has a potentially irreversible environmental impact on nearby ecological reserves that are rightly considered the “Chilean Galapagos” due to their beauty and unique biodiversity. With Boric elected president, the mining project could now go sideways.

Speaking to adoring crowds in Santiago, hours after the polls closed and delivered him a historic victory, Boric said, “Destroying the world is destroying ourselves. We do not want more ‘sacrifice zones,’ we do not want projects that destroy our country, that destroy communities and we exemplify this in a case that has been symbolic: No to Dominga.”

The insatiable demand the green revolution industry has for natural resources such as copper, lithium and cobalt means gutting mountains, destroying ecosystems, polluting rivers, or poisoning workers and the nearby communities of once pristine areas. At current levels of extraction, the world will face severe copper shortages by 2030. Demand for minerals such as lithium is set to increase manifold in the next two decades, to sustain the economy’s transition away from fossil fuels.

Mining must boom to power our emission-free cars, our wind turbines and our solar panels. Its booming will turn pristine areas of the world into lunar landscapes. If it happens far from home, it might be tolerable to Upper West Side and Cupertino eco-warriors in the U.S. But expect the inevitable. Mining eventually comes to wealthy regions, such as the United States or Europe. Just ask Portugal, whose government recently scrapped a lucrative lithium mining project. The residents of the area affected were not too happy about the long-term impact of the project on their way of life and the place they called home. Going green is not so green anymore, when the mining happens near your Tesla recharging station.

Whether Boric the president will do as Boric the candidate is another matter. Money has a way to change politicians in Latin America, as in many parts of the world where rare earth minerals are mined.

But his critique lays bare the hypocrisy of climate change policies. Chile is the world’s largest producer of copper, followed by Peru — another country that recently elected a far-left president. It also has vast lithium deposits — another mineral in high demand to power the green economy transition. The green revolution needs these minerals and mines are hardly the stuff of environmental protection. What Boric is effectively saying is this: If you want electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels, go gut your own country, not mine.

He has a point.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan research institute in Washington, D.C. devoted to foreign policy and national security.


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