There are many hidden costs in electronics that we don’t pay for, even if we would like to. It’s kind of like meat- many like to eat it, even though the meat industry can be very well questioned ethically and environmentally. With cell phones, the hidden costs are more diverse and distant- the most distant and at the same time the most destructive is mining (including the processing of metals and minerals), which we cannot afford in its current form.
It destroys forests and biodiversity to a threatening extent, consumes a lot of fresh water where there is already not enough in most cases, and contributes (including processing) to 10-15% of C02 emissions. The contaminated waste water destroys whole ecosystems again and again.
Local populations are directly affected and suffer from forced displacement, violence, poverty and child labor. This year, for the first time since 1998, the number of people living in poverty is increasing, which means that more young people are spending their childhood in miserable working conditions.
There is no comprehensive legislation that gives people in many resource-rich countries the right to a healthy environment, drinking water, livelihoods, traditional customs, or the right to be informed and free from intimidation and violence.
We need environmental and social standards. That a gap exists between these civil society expectations and mining practices was publicly acknowledged by the CEOs of leading mining companies more than 20 years ago, resulting in numerous initiatives over the years. However, research by the Responsible Mining Foundation over the past 6 years has shown that the gap between mining industry standards and society remains wide: it continues to persist in the transition from ambition to implementation.
While people and nature are already suffering disproportionately from mining on today’s scale, resource demand (of the global North) is exploding. We will need 5x as many rare earths in 2030. The demand for e.g. copper, aluminum, cobalt and lithium will be much higher according to today’s political actions.
Unfortunately, the high demand is not questioned, but assumed for the mobility-energy and digitalization turnaround. For the annual State of the EU address in mid-September, von der Leyen emphasizes that lithium and rare earths will soon be more important than oil and gas. In addition, the EU must no longer be so heavily dependent on China. Above all, security of supply is in the foreground. Unfortunately, no words on the mentioned ecological and social problems of mining.
Security of supply has been in the foreground for a long time. Since 2010, Germany has had a raw materials strategy , with 3 pillars and 17 measures to secure raw material imports for German industry. Germany is one of the main consumers of metals and minerals worldwide. Unfortunately, environmental problems have not yet played a role in the raw materials strategy. In 2020, it was revised and the tenor continues to be security of supply – otherwise the energy, digitization and mobility turnaround will not happen.
It feels like the only thing that has really changed is the mining terminology. There is talk of “green mining” or “climate-smart mining,” while for the most part there is even a lack of fundamental first steps in transparency:
In a survey by the Responsible Mining Foundation of sites that are at least on track for implementation, 75% do not disclose air quality data and 76% do not disclose water quality data.
How are local communities or even states supposed to monitor whether standards are being met if companies don’t (have to) disclose the data?
Finally, to name the elephant in the room: We have to consume less new raw materials! We have to finally think about what we use the raw materials for and what we don’t use them for.
While we are thinking about this, people in many resource-producing countries of the global South are protesting against mining, because they have of course been aware of the direct problems for a long time. Why do we hear so little about this? Perhaps because current, nearby crises, such as the Ukraine war, clearly surpass the others in volume level. Perhaps also because many environmentalists are murdered in connection with mining. In mining, proportionally, the most murders happen against protesting people. Be it people in political offices or those directly affected who defend themselves against exploitation with protests.
These facts must also be incorporated into a raw materials strategy. We have long been aware of our dependence on China, and it has not been reduced in the past; it has only increased. We cannot now rely on diversifying the spread and again pay far too little attention to the problems this will bring. We need a critical look at how we have dealt with this so far and perhaps we need a completely different strategy- for example, a sustainable strategy with many more participants than just the Ministry of Economics. We need broad politics, as well as science and civil society to question our demand and find a holistic strategy. Who should benefit from commodity trading and who should suffer? The way commodity trading works right now, everyone suffers – we only suffer later, when climate change has progressed further and the global social gap has widened even more.
Responsible Mining- Closing the gap:
Powershift Podcasts Folge 30&32:
Südwind Newsletter Oktober 2022
Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Sustainability Circular Industries Hub – Critical materials, green energy and geopolitics: