We Need a New Governance Model to Extract Minerals for the Green Energy Revolution

Tracy-Lynn Field, Claude Leon Chair in Earth Justice and Stewardship, University of the Witwatersrand

Shifting from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy

In response to the existential threat of climate change, a global energy transition involving a shift away from fossil fuel to renewable sources of energy is already well underway. This profound and relatively rapid transformation has been associated with many positive ‘tipping points’, such as the uptake of Electric Vehicles[1].

The green energy transition, however, has a material base in the form of minerals such as copper, cobalt, lithium, and nickel.

Red flags around ‘green minerals’

The significance of these and other so-called critical ‘green’ minerals and their geopolitical implications, has been recognised in a number of recent reports[2].

Some critical green mineral deposits are concentrated in particular regions of the global South. Deposits include, for example, lithium in the salt brines of the ‘Lithium Triangle’ spanning Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile (85% of global lithium production), and the deposits of cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (70% of global cobalt production). Zimbabwe also has sizeable deposits of lithium.

The soaring demand for Lithium-Ion batteries (from around 700 GWh in 2022, to around 4.7 TWh in 2030, according to a McKinsey forecast) is also expanding an extractive focus to the deep sea.

The paradox of the green energy transition

The paradox underlying the green energy transition is that mining for critical minerals has the potential to disrupt and irreparably change ecosystems, destroy livelihoods, and impinge on a range of human rights.

In the DRC, for example, increasing demand for cobalt has reinforced integration of wageless artisanal cobalt miners into the corporate chain, with unintended consequences, including emergent exploitative regimes with no regard for the security of artisanal miners, health risks and environmental degradation.

Indigenous communities have already turned to the courts in an attempt to protect their rights to livelihood, environment, and nature. In a case filed with the National Supreme Court of Argentina, for example, indigenous communities asked the court to order the province of Jujuy, Salta, and the national government to suspend all administrative acts authorising the exploration and exploitation of lithium and borate in the Salinas Grandes Water Basin.

Flaws in governance models for extracting ‘green minerals’

The governance model for extracting critical minerals for the energy transition is riding on the back of the geographically broad-ranging mining reforms instituted at the turn of the twenty-first century, in many cases with the technical assistance of the World Bank (see ‘further reading’ below).

This model was largely aimed at protecting investor interests and integrating minerals from global South jurisdictions into global value chains. The model is often fragmented among laws that deal with the mineral concession, on the one hand, and laws protecting the environment, water, and the rights of indigenous communities on the other.

The scales are not equally balanced, however, as mining benefits from inherent design flaws in the governance framework that ignore local contexts, fail to deal with cumulative impacts, and mismanage the dynamic interactions between multiple miners and often fragile socio-ecological systems.

The result, as has often been witnessed in the extraction of fossil fuels, leads to sacrifice zones where the host jurisdiction and local communities are left with degraded or destroyed ecosystems and drastically reduced livelihood opportunities once the resources are depleted. We cannot afford to have more of the same.

What is needed to ensure energy justice  

To begin with, it is imperative that the well-developed tenets of energy justice – distributive, procedural and recognition justice – should also be applied to the green mineral supply chain. Surprisingly, scholars writing about energy justice frame this as a ‘frontier’ of thinking, drawing on the analogy of how uranium mining was (belatedly) understood as a nuclear energy justice issue.

Applying the tenets of energy justice to the green mineral supply chain should entail, for example, that:

  • the short- and long-term benefits and burdens arising from the mining of lithium, cobalt, and nickel are equitably distributed;
  • the procedures for granting authorities to extract and process green minerals are genuinely participatory; and
  • communities, indigenous peoples, and Nature itself are engaged on their own terms – including the need to recognise limits to the scale of extraction.

This will not be enough, however, and there are already proposals on the table for an entirely different way of governing and concessioning extraction. It is becoming clear, for example, that the mainstream, fragmented model of extractives governance needs to be replaced with an integrated model, where the rights of communities, indigenous peoples, and Nature are put on an equal footing with the rights of miners to mine.

Adaptive governance for extraction and the entire value chain  

A new governance model will also require developing and supporting the capacity of local institutions to participate in a concessioning model that is more tenuous and iterative, and that draws on the principles of adaptive governance.

To put this in practical terms: Instead of being granted a twenty- or thirty-year concession to mine, a miner would be granted a much shorter lease, subject to rigorous and continuous monitoring and supervision on the part of the State and local communities.

The scale of management would be determined by the needs of the ecological system and not political or administrative boundaries. And it will probably require developing legal regimes for specific critical green minerals that govern the value chain, and not only the point of extraction.

A joint effort from all stakeholders is required

Transitioning toward a new model of extractives governance will require the political buy-in of national authorities, international and regional institutions, and the industry itself[3]. Community and environmental organisations will also need to be clear about the scale of governance system change that is required.

Most importantly, however, in order for the ongoing energy transition to be truly just, a new governance model for extractives is essential. Otherwise, state-of-the-art solar and wind-powered generation and storage facilities, and shiny electric vehicles will simply have substituted one form of exploitation and destruction for another.

Further reading

Tracy-Lynn Field State Governance of Mining, Development and Sustainability(Edward Elgar, 2019)

Gabrielle Hecht Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade(MIT Press, 2014)

[1] According to the 2015 Paris Declaration on Electro-Mobility and Climate Change, for example, the goal is to have more than 100 million Electric Vehicles and 400 million two and three-wheelers by 2030.

[2] See the reports from the International Energy Agency and the International Renewable Energy Association.

[3] Chile’s 2014 National Lithium Commission and the process undertaken to develop its 2050 Mining Policy are pointers in the right direction.


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