Many wealthy nations’ green transition strategies rely on a model characterised by industrial-scale extraction of finite metal and mineral reserves, while leaving commodity production and consumption unchecked, writes Tommy Greene in a new article for Left Foot Forward.
Groups campaigning against new mining ventures have warned that the decarbonisation plans unveiled by governments for COP26 amount to little more than ‘greenwashing’.
Environmentalists have pointed to a disjuncture between developed countries’ stated commitments around moving away from carbon-intensive economic growth and the ‘green transition’ routes to net zero they are developing – which include plans outlined by the UK and the EU.
At the worst end, they say the proposals simply represent a new frontier of the “market-led, mining intensive” model of extractivism that has been central to creating the climate crisis.
The UN climate conference talks have seen a rhetorical turn against traditional mining activity, as world leaders seek to demonstrate they are advancing meaningful climate action plans.
In his opening summit speech, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres told delegates: “Enough of burning and drilling and mining our way deeper. We are digging our own graves.”
Yet, as campaign groups have pointed out, many wealthy nations’ green transition strategies rely on a model characterised by industrial-scale extraction of finite metal and mineral reserves, while leaving commodity production and consumption unchecked.
This includes a number of controversial new ventures in the UK, including prospective lithium mines in Cornwall and a gold mine – where the ‘critical materials’ of silver and copper may now be added to the application – at the Sperrin mountains in Northern Ireland.
Last week, the UK published its Net Zero: Build Back Greener strategy, which would see the government “support the engagement of the UK’s mining sector in new and existing markets, facilitating investment and collaboration in extraction and processing opportunities.”
Whitehall also pledged to publish a ‘critical minerals strategy’ in due course, which will set out how the UK would approach “securing technology-critical minerals and metals”.
Hal Rhoades, from The Gaia Foundation, Yes to Life, No to Mining and the London Mining Network, told LFF that the quantities of such materials required for new ‘green’ industry and a number of other unaccounted-for sectors had not been made clear to the public at COP26.
“COP26 has so far proved a stage for the UK Government to advance its limited green credentials with the announcement of flagship initiatives to end deforestation by 2030, amongst others.
“What is less clear is how exactly these goals will be achieved when the UK’s plans to tackle the climate crisis rely on the rapid and massive expansion of mineral and metal mining.
“Business-as-usual scenarios projected by the likes of the World Bank and the International Energy Agency predict that we will need to dramatically increase the extraction of minerals and metals like lithium, copper and tin to meet future demand from sectors including renewable energy, heavy industry and the military.
“This means expanding the ecological, social and climatic harms caused by mineral and metal mining, which already accounts for at least 10% of global carbon emissions, is the deadliest industry for environmental defenders and is becoming more disaster prone.”
Mining for both newer and longer-established commercial materials remains a lucrative sector for UK financiers. According to Revenue Watch, there are 362 mining and oil companies currently listed on the London Stock Exchange, with a combined market capitalisation of more than £1 trillion.
Much of the emphasis at COP26 has been placed on fresh fossil fuel mining ventures, such as the proposed new coal mine in west Cumbria and Cambo oilfield schemes.
A number of announcements promising to put a stop to the financing of new overseas fossil fuel projects, along with coal phase-outs, were made at the summit yesterday.
But campaigners say that the resource and energy demands required for new forms of lower-carbon industry, as well as for some existing sectors going forward – the military, for instance, continues to be exempt from reporting and reducing its emissions – have so far been omitted by the Glasgow talks.
“The latest scientific studies warn that a market-led, mining-intensive transition risks destroying so much biodiversity – and with it the climate-regulating functions of the biosphere – that it could substantially undermine the benefits of decarbonising the energy system using mined minerals and metals.
“The UK Government’s newly released Net Zero strategy says that the UK will support the engagement of the UK’s mining sector in new and existing markets, facilitating investment and collaboration in extraction and processing opportunities.
“This is likely to mean the UK will look to expand domestic mining in regions like Cornwall and Northern Ireland, while providing even greater diplomatic and financial support to London Stock Exchange-listed mining companies operating abroad, including in pristine, climate-critical ecosystems like the cloud forests of Ecuador and the deep sea.”
The Yes to Life, No to Mining Network will be hosting Cop26 discussions that deal with ‘green extractivism’, in which a number of speakers from communities at the frontline of mining developments across the world will share their perspectives on the subject. Find out more.