Sustainable energy must not fuel conflicts, says new study

A new report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development shows how our thirst for green technologies could be fuelling conflicts around the world. Cobalt, which is a key mineral in smartphones, is even being called ‘the blood diamond of this decade’. By John Dyer.

Cobalt has been called the “blood diamonds of this decade” owing to the violence that prevails in the industry in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Image credit: MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechti via Flickr)

Renewable energy is increasingly satisfying the needs of the world, from massive wind farms in Europe to portable solar systems powering lights, televisions and radios in Kenyan households.

But the technologies essential to turbines, photovoltaic panels, batteries and other renewable energy sources often require minerals that come from remote countries where violence and human rights abuses coexist with the extractive industries that service the needs of markets in developed countries.

‘Green’ conflict materials

To avoid fuelling the conflicts marring those countries, sustainable energy boosters need to take a careful look at their supply chains and the regulations and laws that govern them in faraway countries, according to a recently released International Institute for Sustainable Development report entitled “Green Conflict Minerals: The fuels of conflict in the transition to a low-carbon economy”.

The report’s authors viewed their suggestions as an important new twist in the quest to leave fossil fuels behind.

“There’s no question we need to shift to a low-carbon economy. This technology will get us there,” said report co-author Clare Church in a press release. “But we need to do it without blood on our hands. It’s something that needs to be championed by the same voices correctly calling for a green economic transition.”

Cobalt is the ‘blood diamond’ of the decade

The report called cobalt the “blood diamonds of this decade” owing to the violence that prevails in the industry in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the origin of 63 per cent of the mineral. In Guatemala, nickel mining is linked to murder, sexual violence and forced displacement before the mineral reaches manufacturers who use it for solar panels and batteries. Child labour, exposure to high levels of toxic substances and dangerous workplace conditions are common in other countries that supply crucial materials for green energy.

“Stories of armed groups operating cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo and of riots breaking out around bauxite mining in Guinea are just two examples that have raised this issue’s profile,” Church said.

Lithium Triangle is fuelling conflict

The resources are not only in conflict areas. They sometimes fuel conflict.

In the border region of Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia – an area called the Lithium Triangle – corporations seeking to mine the mineral are grappling with unstable governments, poor infrastructure, and environmentalists who stand in their way.

While no one has suggested war could break out, the countries have a history of labour conflicts and political instability that could boil over as the race to mine lithium heats up. Tensions have already flared up between citizens and officials in the countries over land and water rights.

“Political, logistical and regulatory challenges will prevent the three countries from developing their lithium reserves to their full potential,” wrote the American think tank Stratfor earlier this year.

Rules not being enforced

Many countries, like the United States, have laws on the books to prevent blood-stained conflict minerals from making their way into American green energy. But the report noted that American authorities don’t enforce the rules stringently and might not be able to do so given how consumers might be using solar panels and other sustainable energy technologies imported from abroad.

“Most of these metals are not covered in existing conflict mineral legislation, with the exception of tin,” said Church.

Public and private sector alike must step up

Miners have stepped up, launching the Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMI), which aims to provide information to companies that need minerals that often originate in conflict zones. The initiative provides information on conflict-free smelters and other facilities.

“Increasingly, governments and other stakeholders recognize the need to prevent the extraction and trade of minerals with significant adverse impacts, including serious human rights abuses and conflict,” said a RMI press release. “The increased attention has prompted many companies to establish due diligence management systems and publicly report on their practices.”

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