Week of 5 April 2021
Is transitioning to a circular society the only way forward for the renewable energy and extractive sectors?
Investment in renewable energy and technology is accelerating quickly. This is a win for climate, but not a straightforward one: renewable tech requires extracting transition minerals, which poses risks for people and nature … and can contribute to more greenhouse gas emissions due to the resource-intensive minerals mining and refining process. NGO War on Want’s report on the catch-22 of transition minerals advocates for “carefully planned, low-carbon and non-resource-intensive solutions for people and planet.” Specifically, there is a need for “a holistic social transformation” – which is why the term circular society is preferred to circular economy (which operates within the bounds of current economic thinking). This shift to a circular society would entail societal transformations, built on scenarios that reduce our material consumption. Sharing economies; decentralized, renewable energy; more efficient agriculture and construction technologies; and community-based activism all form part of this circular society.
War on Want’s report, A Material Transition: Exploring Supply and Demand Solutions for Renewable Energy Minerals, outlines the key challenges and considerations for the renewable energy and extractive sectors to ensure that the energy transition does not come at the expense of people or planet.
The report also provides an overview of the key human rights and environment issues associated with extraction of transition minerals like cobalt, lithium, nickel, copper and rare earth elements (See Section 3: Global Conflicts and Transition Minerals, starting on page 15); outlines barriers and solutions to developing an equitable and sustainable “circular society” (See Section 5: Towards a Circular Society, starting on page 37); and shares in-depth case studies of frontline community activists in Indonesia and the Philippines directly confronting the challenges that come from nickel mining for use in renewable tech (See Section 7, starting on page 53).
For additional context, you can also review the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre’s Transition Minerals Tracker which tracks information on companies mining cobalt, copper, lithium, manganese, nickel and zinc.
War on Want outlines “three key considerations to ensure that carbon reduction does not come at the expense of climate-critical ecosystems, communities, or respect for human rights”:
- “The transition must include a ‘Just Transition’ for workers as well as communities.”
- “Supply chains for these materials must be appropriately managed to avoid negative social and environmental issues occurring. Deeper understanding of criteria, standards and technologies is needed to ensure fair and just global supply chains for renewable energy technologies, as well as the ethical procurement of these energies.”
- “The consumption of these minerals needs to be carefully considered and reduced where possible, to lessen the predicted impacts.”
The report also puts forward a framework and roadmap for a “post-extractive transition” to climate mitigation, including a reframing of the concept of “circular economy” to move towards a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable “circular society.”
Specifically, the report highlights that circularity should be viewed as “a holistic social transformation” – which is why the term circular society is preferred to circular economy (which operates within the bounds of current economic thinking). There are a number of measures that can be taken to move the circular economy forward: reuse and recycling, design changes which make goods easier to repair and re-use, mining waste from landfills, and expanding experimental forms of mining. Moving toward a circular society will also entail societal transformations, built on scenarios that reduce our material consumption. This could include greater consideration of sharing economies, countries leapfrogging into decentralized, renewable energy and more efficient agriculture and construction technologies, and enhancing community-based activism.
War on Want outlines recommendations for multiple actors to address these issues. We’ve summarised the key recommendations for business (including miners, downstream users and investors) below:
- Support frontline communities:
- “Implement meaningful human rights due diligence”
- “Implement robust infrastructure and sufficient management and monitoring systems that will safeguard against pollution of water, soil and air associated with mining operations”
- Share the findings of monitoring systems with affected stakeholders
- “Enact a ‘zero tolerance’ policy within supply chains for violations involving environmental and human rights defenders”
- Improve supply chain governance
- Publicly commit to respecting human rights and develop policies to act on these commitments, including conducting “risk-based due diligence in line with the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights”
- “Meaningfully engage with [and ensure participation of] all rights-holders directly, particularly affected communities, and accept evidence from them and local NGOs”
- Embed “the concept of supply chain due diligence beyond legal teams to all relevant functions in business enterprises”
- Improve audits and train auditors to more effectively capture human rights and environmental risks
- “Provide resources to allow on-the-ground evidence to be shared and verified, ideally via an independent and secure data-sharing platform”
- “Create greater cohesion” between the many existing initiatives for responsible extractive supply chains
- Promote productive relationships between large-scale mining and artisanal and small-scale mining
- Demand-side solutions
- Manufacturers should “[d]esign products that allow for the re-use, refurbishing, repair, and eventual recycling of items, rather than assuming disposal.”
- Manufacturers should also “[e]nsure products can be designed to minimise metal use, where less harmful alternatives are possible.”
- Investors should “re-orient investments towards more sustainable technologies and businesses with circular business models and applying circularity in your financial institution’s risk policies and product development.”