It’s a recurring knock on clean technologies like solar PV and wind turbines. Critics like to argue that the metals and mineral extraction to make them entail exactly the kind of pollution – and sometimes political conflicts – that clean tech advocates hope to displace in the current fossil fuel supply chain.
We should be clear that we’re starting from a terrible baseline: the geopolitical negatives and pollution from the current regime of oil extraction, coal mining, and natural gas infrastructure dwarfs the likely risks and environmental footprint of producing most clean technology like solar PV and wind turbines.
But at the same time, it’s an area of legitimate concern and one that probably should be addressed at this relatively early stage in clean tech deployment, when advocates of better governance and pollution controls have potentially more leverage over the source countries and states.
Alex Tilley and David Manley of Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI) explore the environmental and political footprint of the clean tech supply chain in a recent blog post and accompanying report. The researchers based their analysis on a World Bank report on various clean technologies and the minerals and metals needed to manufacture them, down to country-level data for the various commodities. They then ran the data against the 2017 Resource Governance Index (RGI) scoring:
[We] found that across the different minerals, on average 42 percent of reserves are in countries with “good” or “satisfactory” resource governance, 37 percent are in countries with “weak” scores (China accounts for 14 percent of this total) and a further 7 percent are in countries that score “poor.” Almost none of the reserves are in countries that are “failing” in their resource governance.
The outlook also presents some serious risks. A high average proportion of minerals reserves is found in countries with “weak” or “poor” governance and for some of the individual minerals, this proportion is much higher.
For example, 90 percent of the reserves of chromium, a mineral used in wind turbines, are in Kazakhstan and South Africa, two countries with “weak” RGI scores. Almost two-thirds of reserves of manganese, used in both wind turbines and lithium-ion batteries, are in countries that score “weak” or “poor” in the index—32 percent in South Africa, 23 percent in Ukraine, 7 percent in China, 4 percent in Gabon and 2 percent in Ghana.
The problems that could ensue from resource extraction in these “weaker” countries include worsening corruption, over-reliance on a single extractive industry, more political conflicts over resources, and local pollution of forests, rivers, and coastlines. For project developers, these impacts could result in delays and project cancellations.
The authors cite some potential solutions from a Nature article for the international community to consider:
Because avoiding disruption is so crucial for the progress of clean technologies, the group of experts writing in Nature propose a global governance approach to avert potential bottlenecks. They call for the international community to set targets for mineral production; map resources; monitor impacts; research and invest in new extractive technologies; and carry out exploration in new frontiers, from sea beds to deep in the earth’s crust. Additionally, they propose an early warning system, using data analysis to trigger alarms for impending supply, governance and environmental concerns.
The upside for the residents of these countries, if the extraction processes are sound with respect to governance and environmental impacts, is rising standards of living and potential growth of a more diversified, open and tolerant economy. The downside though is unfortunately all too possible, unless the international community and clean tech industry mobilize for coordinated policy action.