The Hidden Pains and Challenges of the Low-Carbon Transition

The Hidden Pains and Challenges of the Low-Carbon Transition

A not-so-green energy transition?

As climate change accelerates in intensity and scale every year, states around the world have been attempting to lower carbon emissions to meet the Paris Agreement pledges. In recent years, the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources has been chugging along slowly but steadily. In 2018, renewables made up 26.2% of total energy production, which is expected to rise drastically over the next decades.

Low-carbon transitions are often seen as a positive phenomenon since they supposedly reduce carbon emissions. And yet, they are not as environmentally benign as assumed. Indeed, wind power turbines and solar panels, along with other clean energy sources, utilize natural energy flows that are provided in infinite amounts without incurring carbon emissions. Installing these new infrastructures at a large scale, however, will require vast amounts of non-renewable resources such as minerals and metals.

As a result, various hidden environmental costs are incurred at different stages of the transition to renewables. The material demands of a transition towards a low-carbon energy system are immense, implicating an increasing need for imports of many different raw materials over the next decades. There is also evidence that low-carbon transitions can in fact create new socio-economic injustices and vulnerabilities, threatening to worsen pre-existing structural drivers of injustice and inequality in energy markets and the wider economy.

Lithium salt mines

At the centre of the offsetting of carbon emissions discussion lies the future of sustainable transportation. Leading the move away from internal combustion engines are electric vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries. These batteries have become indispensable for our daily lives as they are used for laptops, phones, and many other electronic devices we depend on. They are also needed for the world’s transition to clean energy. For instance, batteries are used as storage systems for solar energy. All these batteries, however, require something that is not renewable at all: lithium. Consequently, demand for lithium is increasing exponentially and even doubled in price in 2018. The environmental impact of finding this mineral could become a very serious issue.

In South America, the Lithium Triangle, which overlaps in parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, holds more than half of the world’s supply of lithium beneath its salt flats. This area, however, is one of the world’s driest areas, which constitutes a major issue since immense quantities of water (around 500,000 gallons per tonne of lithium) are required to extract lithium and pump the salty, mineral-rich brine to the surface. In Chile, mining activities have already consumed 65% of Salar de Atacama’s water supply, a region where some communities already had trouble getting access to water. Consequently, this has negatively affected the livelihoods of local farmers that grow quinoa and herd llamas.

The mining of lithium goes beyond just the issue of water. In fact, lithium extraction inevitably contaminates the soil, water, and air in the vicinity of the mines. In Argentina, locals have claimed that lithium extraction activities have contaminated water streams used by local communities and livestocks, as well as for crop irrigation. In 2016, a toxic chemical leak from Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium mine in Tibet completely destroyed the surrounding ecosystems, killing thousands of fish that washed up on the banks of the Liqi River.  


Cobalt and nickel are two other elements needed for lithium-ion batteries. They are also in danger of creating environmental and social problems in the move towards sustainable transportation and renewables. Intense mining for cobalt has not only been linked to lung disease and heart failure for workers in mines, but also to the contamination of crops and the loss of soil fertility. The environmental impact extends throughout the life cycle of cobalt, from refineries all the way to waste dumps. This has been especially distressing in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which produces more than 60% of the world’s cobalt. Other countries, such as Cuba, Australia, and Zambia, have reported similar alarming environmental impacts. 

To make matters worse, this race for clean energy minerals has incurred numerous human rights violations. For instance, in western Congo, approximately 35,000 child miners working in cobalt mines feed the world’s hunger for lithium-ion batteries. In 2016, a report from Amnesty International claimed that seven of the world’s leading electric vehicle manufacturers had failed to carry out due diligence over their cobalt supply chains in line with the international standards set out by the United Nations and Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 

The OECD Guidance on Responsible Supply Chains states that businesses carry the responsibility to publish their assessment along the supply chain and report any abuses. Before the report, none of the seven vehicle manufacturers had disclosed any human rights violations, despite significant evidence of the contrary. Since then, only three of them (Renault, BMW and Daimler) have taken steps towards increasign oversight of their supply chain.

 As the demand for cobalt is set to increase over the next decade to power our shift towards electric vehicles and clean energy, the risk of exacerbating worsening systematic and unjust conditions of vulnerable groups will also grow.

Obstacles to compliance with environmental and social standards

The above cases of mining activities raise an increasingly urgent question that necessitates further debate and contemplation. A 2019 UN analysis claims that extraction and processing of metals and minerals may account for half of global greenhouse gas emissions. They may also constitute up to 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress on the planet. Consequently, poor environmental standards in the mining activities needed for energy transition resources could weaken the emission reduction effect of each renewable power installation. 

At the European level, headway has been made to impose tighter regulations to ensure sustainable and fair supply chains. There is, however, an inherent conflict between the imperative need to secure access to raw materials, and the supply chain laws and regulations that would exclude suppliers that fail to comply with social and environmental standards. The fact of the matter is that supplies of metals and minerals needed for clean energy technology are concentrated in few areas of the world. As a result of this, there is little wiggle room for companies to change suppliers if they are found in violation of such standards. 

Ultimately, industry cannot ensure compliance with human rights in source countries. However, the state can. Governments could enforce compliance by tightening supply chain regulation and obligating companies to make their supply chain more transparent and accountable. Consumers could also help guarantee more sustainable and fair practices by demanding better regulated certified products. Especially in Western markets, consumers are increasingly becoming more socially and environmentally conscious of their purchases, pushing companies to increase the transparency of their operations.

Looking ahead

There is no doubt that a transition to a low-carbon energy system is necessary to slow down climate change disruptions and fast-climbing temperatures. Nevertheless, the instalment of the infrastructure needed for such large-scale projects threatens to give rise to further social and environmental damages due to the finite, non-renewable resources that it requires. If not regulated properly, the transition to clean energy could perpetuate social injustices and inequalities, making marginalized communities more vulnerable than ever before. Hence, a discussion on better regulations for supply chains of green technology and on the opportunity costs that are at play is crucial if we truly wish to create a better, more just, future for coming generations.

Edited by Arielle De Leon

Photo credits: “Wind Turbines” by Jon B Gem, published on August 2, 2008, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. No changes were made.

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