By Andrew Nikiforuk
We are going to have to dramatically downsize the dream of a future in which we replace 150-year-old fossil fuel infrastructure with “clean energy” by 2050.
That’s the message in a number of recent important reports and books. They underscore a number of problems with the renewables illusion, including the complexity of the task, the toxicity of rare earth mining and the scarcity of critical minerals.
These grounded realists, including the French journalist Guillaume Pitron and the Australian geologist Simon Michaux, all have three basic messages:
There are dramatic limits to growth.
Truth and reality are not linear.
And the world needs a better plan to avoid collapse other than replacing one unsustainable fossil fuel system with another intensive mining system powered by even more extreme energies. In other words, electrifying the Titanic won’t melt the icebergs in its path.
‘Doubling down on the wrong thing’
For largely ideological reasons many greens and “transitionists” have presented the transition to renewables as a smooth road with no potholes.
In so doing they have ignored much basic geology, energy physics and even geopolitics. As a consequence many imagine the construction of millions of batteries, wind mills, solar panels, transmission lines and associated technologies, but they downplay the required intensification of mining for copper, nickel, cobalt and rare minerals you’ve probably never heard of such as dysprosium and neodymium.
One of the great lies of modern technological society is that of endless mineral abundance. Urban consumers, who have little knowledge of energy realities underpinning their existence, have swallowed the idea that digital gadgets and automation will somehow detach society from the physical world and allow us to do more with less, leading to a dematerialization of society.
But that’s a wholesale fiction long debunked by the likes of the energy ecologist Vaclav Smil and the late geologist Walter Youngquist. The average North American citizen not only consumes 1.3 million kilograms of minerals, metals and fuels in their lifetime but has no idea where they come from or at what cost.
The current global mining footprint is already “unsustainable” if that plastic word has any meaning left. In his book Extraction to Extinction the British geologist David Howe politely notes that current mining operations have now become their own geological force, scraping , sorting and collecting more dirt, rock and sediment than the world’s rivers, wind, rain and glaciers every year. But you can’t build solar panels, wind mills or electric cars without mining more copper, lithium, iron and aluminum along with the rare earth technology metals that only appear in small concentrations. That means vastly more destructive scraping and digging of ocean floors, rainforests and tundras on a scale inconceivable to most environmentalists.
Already the industrial global machine that serves our shop till you drop culture has dug up more materials and metals than the globe’s total living biomass. In other words our machines, cellphones, buildings, cars, asphalt roads, concrete, plastic, gravel and bricks started to outweigh the world’s plants, fungi, animals and bacteria by 2020. If we continue on this extractive course the pile of human mined materials on this groaning planet will triple global biomass by 2040.
Will it really matter if we reach net-zero emissions by extinguishing the last remnants of biodiversity in the process, asks the U.S. physicist Tom Murphy in a recent essay. He considers the current prescription for stopping climate change with a mining boom to support an industrial production of renewable technologies a dangerous course.
“It’s doubling down on the wrong thing: propping up and accelerating the machine that’s eating the planet alive. Barrelling forward on renewable energy is the last thing Earth’s critters would vote for, and would be considered one of the more disruptive decisions we could make.”
Murphy is far from alone in that assessment. After the U.S. renewables skeptic Alice Friedemann tabulated the mining costs of rare earth mineral mining needed for renewables, including enormous tailing ponds, poisoned groundwater, radioactive waste and volatile geopolitics, she flatly concluded, “Our quest for a more ecological growth model has resulted in intensified mining of the Earth’s crust to extract the core ingredient — rare metals — with an environmental impact that could prove far more severe than that of oil extraction.”
Making a pile
Years ago, the U.S. historian and technology critic Lewis Mumford argued civilization’s dependence on intense mining had dramatically changed its values. As the extraction business became more important to empires, it contaminated economic thinking with an ethos dedicated to making a killing as opposed to a living. In mining the ends always justify the means. And in a technological society everything is now mined, from soils to people’s behaviour on the internet.
In 1934 Mumford described what this destructive ethos entailed: “The miner works, not for love or for nourishment, but to ‘make his pile.’ The classic curse of Midas became perhaps the dominant characteristic of the modern machine: whatever it touched was turned to gold and iron, and the machine was permitted to exist only where gold and iron could serve as foundation.”
So when you strip away all the plastic words and inflated claims, what you find in the enthusiasm for a new era of renewables is the prospect of making another pile. In Canada, mining companies already are licking their chops with more than 50 rare earth mining projects now on the books. The Mining Association of Canada declares without a hint of irony that “there is a natural synergy between mining” and so-called “clean technology.” Yet neither mining nor technology are green or clean.
In Australia geologists now gush without embarrassment that, “We will need more mines to save the planet.” But more mines will have the opposite effect. More destroyed landscapes, debased watersheds and displaced rural communities. All to sustain our technological dependence on minerals.
The average smart phone contains at least 40 elements from the periodic table including cobalt and six rare earth minerals that make the screen glow. The average electric car uses six times more critical minerals than a combustion car. An onshore wind plant needs nine times more mineral resources than an equivalent gas-fired power plant. An e-bike is more mineral intensive than an ordinary bike. And so on. Renewables just haven’t accelerated the demand for rare earth minerals but a variety of base metals such as copper, silver and cobalt.
Every electric vehicle contains about 75 kilograms of copper or three times more than a conventional vehicle. A single wind turbine generally contains 500 kilograms of nickel. That nickel requires 100 tonnes of steelmaking coal to be refined. And every crystalline silicon solar panel contains 20 grams of silver paste. It takes 80 metric tons of silver to generate approximately a gigawatt of solar power. (In power terms that’s equivalent to 9,000 Nissan Leafs.)
Demand is projected to spiral upwards. A recent U.K. report on critical minerals estimated: “Global demand for electric vehicle battery minerals (lithium, graphite, cobalt, nickel) is projected to increase by between six and 13 times by 2040 under stated policies, which exceeds the rate at which new primary and secondary sources are currently being developed.”
Calculating inconvenient truths
Simon Michaux is an Australian-born geologist who now works for Finland’s Geological Society. Over the last couple of years Michaux has produced a number of comprehensive papers that challenge the assumption there is enough energy and minerals to replace combustion engines with electric ones and fossil fuels with other forms of “green” power.
Michaux recently made an important calculation on what would be needed to replace a system run by fossil fuels with a “renewable” one based on 2019 consumption figures. The scale of the thing is mindboggling. Just to replace 46,423 power stations run by oil, coal, gas and nuclear energy would require the construction of 586,000 power stations run by wind, solar and hydrogen. That’s 10 times greater than the existing system due to the low power density of renewables.
Building such infrastructure will require an incredible volume of metals and rare earth minerals and a vastly larger scale of mining. No wonder billionaires talk about mining asteroids, Mars and the ocean floor.
Since 400 BCE, various civilizations dug up 700 million tonnes of metals (everything from bronze to uranium) prior to 2020. But a so-called green transition will require mining another 700 million metric tonnes by 2040 alone, calculates Michaux. Copper tells the grim story here. (Trying running a phone or a windmill without this metal.) Current copper reserves stand at 880 million tonnes. That’s equal to approximately 30 years of production. But industry will need 4.5 billion tonnes of copper to manufacture just one generation of renewable technologies, estimates Michaux. That’s six times the volume of copper mined throughout history.
After that generation comes many more, and sooner than you might imagine. On average a windmill and solar panel has to be replaced every 25 years and that’s why energy critic Nate Hagens has called them “rebuildables” instead of renewables.
Global reserves for battery metals such as water-intensive lithium in Latin America and slave-labour extracted cobalt in the Congo present even more problems. They represent less than five per cent of what society needs for an energy transition. And so, as Michaux highlights in his research, society will need to develop different materials for batteries than lithium. “The message here,” he states dryly in one presentation, “is that we need to come up with a different plan.”
Declining ore quality complicates this picture. The world’s industrial machine has already exploited the easiest metal reserves to extract. As a result the volume of rock processed for gold increased between 20 and 50 per cent between 2000 and 2009 while production declined by 11 per cent or did not change. Costs, meanwhile, climbed significantly. Diminishing returns haunts the entire metal mining industry.
Paying more for less comes with extreme energy costs. As ore quality declines, industry must use more energy to mine it. Recent studies show that the average ore grade of copper mines has decreased by about 25 per cent in just 10 years. That means more fossil fuels must be burned to haul and crush more rock. As a result total energy consumption in copper mining has increased at a higher rate than production.
Growing energy intensity translates into higher emissions for lower returns. Multiply the problem of depleting ore quality for other essential metals for renewable energy and you have a major global crisis in the making. Michaux estimates that the carbon footprint of the world’s mining industry could soon surpass that of industrial agriculture.
The goal of weaning off the world off fossil fuels with renewables runs into another geological problem. Mining is not an app that you can download overnight. Of 1,000 potential deposits, only one or two become economic mines. On average it takes 10 to 20 years to develop a workable deposit. Furthermore, increasingly volatile market conditions shut down two of every 10 operating mines.
Extracting technology metals is also a high energy and high emissions affair. Even the International Energy Agency recently admitted in its minerals report, “Production of energy transition minerals can lead to significant GHG emissions. These minerals typically require much more energy to produce per unit of product than other commodities, which results in higher emissions intensity.”
In response to Michaux’s work and the IEA report, a group of academics with no background in geology recently wrote a paper in the journal Joule claiming that people had nothing to worry about. “Historically, mineral markets have adjusted to accommodate growing demand over time.”
The paper unfortunately pretends that depletion, corruption, wars, water shortages and geopolitics don’t exist in global mining markets. Moreover, it leaves out the minerals needed for batteries and only addresses a tenth of the demand needed for an energy transition.
Rare earth realities
Now let’s add more complexity to this picture and examine the unique case of rare earth elements, or REEs, which occupy 17 spots on the periodic table. These so-called technology metals can be found throughout the Earth’s crust in small quantities — which means industry has to use more energy to mine more ore to get less of the desired product for refining.
This explains why the rare earth elements needed for “clean energy technologies” as well as most military systems generate 2,000 tons of toxic waste for every ton produced, including one ton of radioactive waste.
The Japanese refer to REEs as “the seeds of technology” because they possess unique catalytic, metallurgical, nuclear, electrical, magnetic and luminescent properties. Neodymium and praseodymium, for example, are used to make permanent magnets essential for electric motors and wind turbines. Conventional vehicles don’t need these minerals but EVs do — about one kilogram per vehicle.
Rare earth metals are dirty to mine and dirty to process. A recent Canadian environment review highlighted that REEs are anything but green, noting, ”radioactive contamination and REE toxicity are unique potential risks compared with other types of mines.” It added, “These potential risks are cryptic and of high risk for public health because there are few proven mitigation strategies appropriate for Canada to reduce or minimize their adverse impacts.”
For the record there are no Canadian federal water quality standards or guidelines for REEs.
One of the reasons most digital consumers and many greens know little about the destructive mining practices required to supply their phones and electric cars with REEs boils down to Chinese politics.
Decades ago this authoritarian state made the strategic decision to concentrate on REE production as part of its imperial ambitions. To dominate global markets (and it has done so), the government largely ignored the horrific environmental costs, writes Guillaume Pitron in The Rare Metals War: The Dark Side of Clean Energy. As a consequence China has provided the REEs necessary for the technological gadgets that North Americans relentlessly employ in their daily life. Distant supply chains and China’s lack of transparency hid the environmental costs in rural China and consumers wrongly assumed their electrical cars and phones were the products of immaculate conception.
Pitron exposes the results in his book. “Concealing the dubious origins of metals in China has given green and digital technologies the shining reputation they enjoy. This could very well be the most stunning greenwashing operation in history.” Another blindness has also taken hold: “in contrast to the carbon economy, whose pollution is undeniable, the new green economy hides behind virtuous claims of responsibility for the sake of future generations.”
So here’s what green revolution actually looks like. If you’ve owned a cellphone or a computer over the past 25 years, your gadgets were probably assembled with rare earth minerals from Bayan Obo, the largest rare earth element mineral deposit in the world. Once a sacred mountain in Mongolia, the Chinese government reduced its geography to ruin as part of its strategy to dominate rare earth markets.
Over a 10 year period the cancer ridden population of the region has fallen from 2,000 to 300. “First the animals got sick, then the infants, and then everybody else,” went the local refrain. One village near the mine’s radioactive and acid tailings pond was known as “death village” because 60 of its residents died of brain or lung cancer between 1993 and 2005. Radioactive tailing waste, fluorides and arsenic have contaminated both food chains and drinking water.
Even reticent Chinese scientists now warn that “intensive geological prospecting for REE ore deposits… causes extreme damage to the environment.” They also now “worry that there would be widespread tailing facilities concomitant with serious pollutions” due to rising demand from “green high-tech industries.”
The pathway to a low carbon economy looks just as ugly and destructive in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where men, women and children mine cobalt. About 72 per cent of the global supply of cobalt comes from either giant Chinese-owned mines or so-called artisanal miners who scramble for ore in a colonial hell.
In his book Cobalt Red, the British researcher Siddharth Kara details the razed forests, the polluted watersheds, the impoverished communities and the legacy of theft. Ask any Congo miner and they will tell you that the face of the renewable revolution is not virtuous or clean. Concludes Kara: “The ongoing exploitation of the poorest people in Congo by the rich and powerful invalidates the purported moral foundation of contemporary civilization and drags humanity back to a time when the people of Africa were valued only their replacement cost.”
Let’s add another brutal reality about the geopolitics of technology mineral resources on the planet. They tend to be concentrated in Latin America, Africa, Central Asia, North America and northern Europe. The deposits are often located in jurisdictions that are corrupt, water challenged or highly vulnerable to climate events. In fact the mining industry boasts one of the highest rates of corruption on the planet.
Both China and Russia have both realized that the technologies that drive modern life require rare earth minerals, and they are scrambling to monopolize these resources in Africa and other regions. These tyrants realize that a global owner and refiner of these precious minerals will have more power than a global shopper such as Europe. Russia didn’t just invade the Ukraine because of Putin’s delusions of grandeur; the Ukraine is one of the most resource-rich places in Europe.
Olivia Lazard, an expert on the political ecology of conflict, recently emphasized these dark developments in a TED presentation and in an subsequent interview: “If we delve into a scramble for rare earth minerals (and that process has already begun) then various governments and corporations could well plunder what’s left of the planet as well the seabed and distant asteroids on the much vaulted path to decarbonization,” noted Lazard. “We could actually lose the future of humanity trying to save it on behalf of the climate. And this is the ultimate irony, right?”
The ultimate irony is also an ultimate hell. Given that the “pathway to a low carbon economy” requires a toxic and unsustainable mining boom, experts have been quietly raising red flags for years. The Kleinman Centre for Energy Policy, for instance, warned in 2021 that “the clean energy transition will require economic mobilization on a scale not seen since the industrial revolution, and will strain the global production of silicon, cobalt, lithium, manganese and a host of other critical elements.”
The centre added that failure to avoid the toxic realities of China and the Congo “would jeopardize the sustainability of renewable energy technologies utilizing REEs and could partially offset their emissions benefits.”
‘We need a frank discussion’
So here’s the basic problem as eloquently summed up by Michaux.
Over 150 years civilization has built a highly complicated industrial system based on cheap fossil fuels. The cheapness of those fuels created a robust banking system and an industrial agricultural system. It fuelled urbanization and globalization. Moreover cheap energy sustained the illusion that resources are inexhaustible.
Now that fossil fuel emissions have cooked the climate and decimated biological diversity, our fearless leaders want to replace that entire system with one that is more mineral-intensive and complex.
They want to do so at a moment when economic flows have slowed down due to the rising cost of extreme fossil fuels such as fracked shale gas and mined bitumen. The whole process of replacing a declining system with a more complex mining-based enterprise is now supposed to take place with a fragile banking system, dysfunctional democracies, broken supply chains, critical mineral shortages and hostile geopolitics.
Meanwhile climate events are destroying infrastructure and producing great waves of homeless migrants from failing states.
All of these incontestable realities highlight the fact that our dreams of a renewable powered boom are illusory. We need a different conversation than fossil fuelled business as usual or a Green New Deal.
Michaux has offered some starters. “We need frank discussion about what minerals we think we need versus what we’ve got,” he said in an excellent interview with Nate Hagens on his podcast, The Great Simplification. “And then we’re going to realize that what we got won’t work with the existing plan.”
Fundamentally, we need to talk about a future of less instead of a future of more.
Society will have to build simple products that last and that can be easily recycled. “And we will scale back our needs and our society will simplify,” adds Michaux.
That is the conversation we should be having now. The one we continue to avoid.
Credit: The Tyee