April 21, 2024

Why Onshoring Critical Minerals Mining to the Global North Isn’t Climate Justice

Gas shortages in Asia and Europe. A climate investment package stalled in the U.S. Congress. The cost of renewable technologies ticking up worldwide after decades of steady decline.

2021 was the year the energy transition collided with snarled supply chains—all amid accelerating climate devastation and a brutal pandemic with no end in sight. “Renewable energy” and “supply chains” aren’t phrases we often see side by side. This is in part because renewable energy sources like sun, wind, and geothermal are more evenly distributed across the Earth than fossil fuels that must travel great distances to reach consumers.

But harnessing carbon-free energy likewise requires globe-trotting processes of economic production. And this economic production begins with mined materials: lithium, cobalt, rare-earth elements, graphite, iron, nickel, bauxite, and more.

While climate advocates rightfully focus on dramatically reducing emissions by keeping oil, coal, and gas in the ground, corporations and governments around the world are eying the resources that need to come out of the ground for renewable energy systems to function. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts skyrocketing demand for these so-called critical minerals, an early 20th-century military-industrial term revamped for the 21st-century green economy.

These minerals are now the terrain of geopolitics. Or—perhaps better put—of geoeconomics: the intermingling of national security and economic policy. Seen through a geoeconomic lens, the supply chains of green technologies such as solar panels and lithium batteries are battlefields of zero-sum interstate competition.

For decades, as part of neoliberal globalization and its tenets of free trade, capital mobility, and deregulation, the governments of global north countries increasingly offshored manufacturing and extraction to the global south and replaced those sectors with services, real estate, and finance, all while starving their own states’ industrial capacity. Now, they are scrambling to catch up with an ascendent China, with its dense ecosystems of green technology manufacturing and innovation, and its access to the world’s raw materials through firms with interlocking state and private ownership.

In response, the United States and European Union have embraced an unusual policy paradigm: critical minerals onshoring.

In a seeming reversal of decades of offshoring toxic and socially contentious sectors such as mining, the two blocs are luring extractive firms to set up shop within their borders. This is especially noteworthy in the case of lithium. As a nonsubstitutable material in the rechargeable batteries that power electric vehicles and store sun and wind power on renewable grids, lithium is an essential ingredient for the energy transition. The IEA predicts lithium demand will grow by 4,200 percent by 2040. U.S. and EU agencies, as well as EU member states, are providing lucrative incentives for lithium companies, ranging from fast-tracking permitting processes to subsidies, direct financing, and “de-risking” (public policies that shield investors from financial or political risk).

This represents an emerging critical-minerals consensus: the belief that onshoring lithium, paired with similar incentives for battery and electric vehicle firms, will enable end-to-end dominance of the supply chain. A powerful echo chamber has helped consolidate this consensus, which is shared by think tanks, industry groups such as the U.S. National Mining Association, U.S. Zero Emission Transportation Association, and the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, and the highest echelons of policymaking in the United States and EU—and which has been amplified in Western media outlets.

Further complicating this global picture, interstate competition is not the only arena of conflict over critical minerals. Lithium extraction has stoked grassroots resistance in many countries. This is particularly evident in Chile, the world’s second-largest lithium producer, where lithium mining has imperiled water access, threatened biodiversity, and violated Indigenous rights. As the lithium frontier expands, protests have likewise erupted in the United States and Europe.

The emerging map of lithium extraction poses a challenge for global justice. While enticing extraction to the global north appears to alleviate the harms of extraction in the global south, in reality it may do little to ensure a globally just energy transition.

A worker at a factory that makes lithium batteries for electric cars

A worker at a factory that makes lithium batteries for electric cars and other uses in Nanjing, China, on March 12, 2021. STR/AFP via Getty Images

The pivot to onshoring is a confusing conjuncture for progressives in the West. At first glance, onshoring extraction to the global north appears to be a more just arrangement than neoliberal globalization. Beginning with popular 1990s uprisings like the Zapatistas in Mexico and the Battle of Seattle, activists have long critiqued that economic paradigm for its brutal exploitation of labor and devastating social and environmental consequences—especially in low-income countries. These harms are the result of structural features of the global economy, including footloose capital, sprawling and opaque supply chains, and the race to the regulatory bottom.

Reflecting these concerns, U.S. and EU government officials justify the pivot as a way to create jobs, revitalize deindustrialized areas hit hard by free trade agreements, and subject green technologies to rigorous environmental and labor standards from mine to factory. (Some left-wing think tanks and labor unions have articulated their own more progressive versions of onshoring battery and electric vehicle supply chains.)

Meanwhile, the prospect of locating lithium mining in such countries as the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom can feel like a righting of historic—and ongoing—wrongs. In an entrenched pattern scholars call “unequal ecological exchange,” economies in the global north have long benefited from the land, labor, raw materials, and energy sources in the global south. And extraction is often violent: Around the world, land and environmental defenders risk their lives in the face of state and corporate repression, and mining companies supplying renewable energy sectors have an alarming record of alleged human rights violations.

Yet there are reasons to be concerned about onshoring mining to the global north. First and foremost, the hawkish thrust of this policy should invite skepticism. Although some environmentalists might cheer interstate competition to produce renewable energy technologies, tactics such as trade wars, economic sanctions, and threats to “decouple” from Chinese supply chains ratchet up geopolitical tensions at a moment when global cooperation is more needed than ever.

Second, economic nationalism savvily appeals to working-class grievances while papering over class conflict, presuming there is a supposed national interest above the opposing interests of bosses and workers. Yet lithium onshoring, for instance, takes the form of taxpayer-funded handouts to multinational corporations. Whether it would actually benefit laborers is unclear.

Third, we shouldn’t assume environmental and labor regulations are more stringent, or that mining is thus more responsible, in the global north. Affluent countries have their own regulatory weaknesses. Take the United States, where the law regulating mining on public land dates to 1872, contains no environmental provisions, and facilitates prospecting for valuable mineral deposits without consulting or even informing Indigenous tribes, in effect dispossessing them of territories used for hunting, medicinal plant gathering, or cultural ceremonies. Or look at Spain and Portugal, where lithium expansion plans are underway: Both countries have the weakest regulations on safety protocols for tailings dams, where toxic mining waste is stored, of any jurisdiction with such regulations in the world. (And regulations exist in nearly all the world’s tailings dam sites.)

Fourth, the United States and EU aren’t monoliths. Their populations do not equally benefit from unequal exchange with the global south—or equally pay the environmental costs of global north onshoring. As scholarship on environmental justice has long shown, pollution—whether from a mine, a power plant, or a highway—disproportionally affects marginalized groups, from Appalachia to what’s been dubbed “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana. This pattern holds for extraction related to the energy transition. For instance, one 2021 report found that in the United States, 79 percent of lithium reserves and resources are located within 35 miles of Indigenous reservations.

THACKER PASS, NEVADAMembers of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone tribe and supporters gather for a circle dance

Members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and supporters gather for a circle dance for healing during a protest in opposition to the proposed lithium mine at Thacker Pass, Nevada, which has historical significance for the tribe, on June 5, 2021.Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The proposed Thacker Pass project in the United States—which would affect the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the Burns Paiute Tribe, and the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe—sits across a valley from landscapes scarred by almost a century of mercury mining, littered with abandoned pits that pose serious health risks. The region of northern Portugal slated for expanded lithium extraction is peppered with abandoned gold and tin/tungsten mines, whose toxic wastes still run off into water and soil. Serbia, where Anglo-Australian mining group Rio Tinto had plans to mine lithium before protests scuttled them, suffers from among the highest levels of air pollution in Europe due partly to coal power plants, petrochemical production, and other extractive activities. In all three countries, proposed lithium projects have sparked grassroots pushback, from protest encampments near Thacker Pass to large demonstrations in Portugal and most recently in Serbia.

These protests add a fifth challenge to the proposition that onshoring extraction to the global north is a form of justice. Anti-extractive activists in the United States and Europe are increasingly organizing with those in the global south via transnational networks such as Yes to Life, No to Mining that link front-line communities across borders. Such flourishing transnational activism is a testament to the fact that global north onshoring is in no way replacing extraction in the global south.

That’s because overall demand for critical minerals is growing, buoying prices and making it profitable to both expand and intensify the extractive frontier. Combined with governments’ onshoring push, this means new mines in the global north alongside more rapacious extraction in the global south. Indeed, demand for lithium is rising so quickly that a “structural shortage” may occur in as soon as this year, according to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

Enticed by a combination of high prices and government support, lithium producers in the global south (Argentina and Chile), global north (Australia), and countries that pose a challenge to this binary (China) are ramping up production, while new lithium projects are in various stages of development around the world (including in Bolivia, Portugal, Spain, Germany, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Britain, and, more speculatively, Afghanistan). The result is a truly “planetary” mine.

Global north onshoring does not repair the forms of environmental harm disproportionally meted out in the global south. It allows those harms to continue, alongside new ones that primarily affect oppressed populations within more affluent countries. Even if onshoring succeeded in completely relocating extraction—and there is no indication it will—unless it is paired with environmental remediation or economic alternatives for mining communities, luring investment away from the global south could be harmful in itself.

Extractive zones don’t need abandonment and further disinvestment, but rather a just transition to another global economic model.

Thousands of demonstrators block a highway in Belgrade

Thousands of demonstrators block a highway in Belgrade, Serbia, on Dec. 4, 2021, as anger swells over a government-backed plan to allow mining giant Rio Tinto to extract lithium in the country. OLIVER BUNIC/AFP via Getty Images

Prevailing renewable energy transition approaches are highly resource intensive. For this reason, Yes to Life, No to Mining, as well as many environmental and human rights groups such as Earthworks and Amnesty International are increasingly advocating for reducing mining, period. It is not enough, they argue, to leave fossil fuels in the ground. They recognize that the world needs a broader reckoning with the extractive foundations of global capitalism.

In the view of these movements and NGOs, moving mining from one site to another doesn’t address the root causes of predatory extraction in the first place: the policies, everyday practices, and modes of production and consumption that require a constant stream of raw materials. To slow the relentless expansion of the extractive frontier, their proposals demand mandatory recycling and materials recovery, mass transit and car-free cities, moratoriums on sensitive ecosystems, and enforced rights to community consent (in particular, Indigenous peoples’ right to prior consultation and consent—as recognized in multiple international conventions—before decisions are made).

Such alternative approaches would do much more than swap fossil fuels with renewables. However, even a world of radically reduced resource demand would require some level of new mining—at least until there is sufficient raw material from recycled and recovered batteries for a fully circular economy to be feasible. (Researchers estimate that over the next two decades, recycling could a replace a quarter to 55 percent of critical minerals mining.) This raises another thorny challenge: In the near term, and once all demand-reduction strategies have been exhausted, is it possible to extract lithium and other minerals in a way that maximizes social and environmental justice? There is no simple prescription here.

Mining, in historian Gabrielle Hecht’s vivid phrasing, is “inverting the planet”: It disrupts landscapes, ecosystems, and human communities while leaving behind enormous quantities of waste. To call such a process “sustainable” or “green” is to evacuate words of their meanings. And right now, a potent combination of hawkish state actors, profit-seeking extractive and automotive firms, and entrenched reliance on cars all but ensure a mining-intensive energy transition. But that doesn’t mean we should give up hope.

Reducing the amount of mining required to build a world that runs on renewable energy will require strong countervailing forces in civil society and the state. First and foremost, this means empowering—and connecting—communities on both ends of the supply chain. Recent scholarship shows that despite power asymmetries between multinational mining companies and oftentimes marginalized communities, social movements can successfully shape the fate of extractive projects.

Especially when movements organize at an early stage before a mine is constructed, tap into vast activist networks, and deploy nonviolent but disruptive tactics, they can achieve outcomes including stronger environmental regulation, higher levels of community participation in mining governance, the protection of ecologically and culturally important landscapes, and in some cases stalling or even stopping projects altogether. For instance, in late January, and after months of sustained protest, the Serbian government was forced to cancel Rio Tinto’s permits for a project that would have been the biggest lithium mine in Europe.

Governments also have a vital role to play in shaping the volume and impact of extraction. What drives demand for raw materials is the global pattern of production and consumption. In the case of lithium, the main driver is electric vehicles. Existing research suggests that switching to mass transit combined with policies that reduce individual car use would reduce the demand for lithium and allow more of it to be satisfied by recycled lithium batteries. State regulations will be key here, alongside movements organizing for transit justice—the creation of public transportation that is reliable, frequent, accessible, and affordable or free.

Mass transit isn’t only the just and equitable thing to do; research demonstrates that investing in public transit boosts overall economic activity, which in turn expands the tax base. Some studies even suggest that fare-free mass transit pays for itself. How transit is funded will vary from country to country, but in the United States at least, while legislation that would fund larger investments in transit systems is held up in Congress, state legislatures can channel existing funds from the 2021 pandemic stimulus bill to transit authorities.

Furthermore, governments across the supply chain can tip the scales by enforcing community consultation and consent, implementing rigorous and transparent environmental impact assessment processes, independently monitoring water use and pollution levels, mandating battery recycling, and requiring manufacturers to use recovered metals, among other policies.

And a just global economy would require more than reallocating the burden of extractive harm; as the COVID-19 vaccine apartheid dramatizes, it would also entail a more just distribution of value-added manufacturing capacities and the consumption of the final products of green technological innovation.

Alongside environmental and social harms, the fact that communities and workers at the sites of extraction so rarely benefit from the gleaming products they create adds insult to injury. It’s the everyday cruelty of global capitalism: one person drinking contaminated water so that someone else far away, in a different stratosphere of wealth and status, can drive a Tesla. Onshoring, in theory at least, is aimed at addressing this. But global north leaders are suspiciously silent about what it would take to bring production at the end of the supply chain into low-income countries and are notoriously late in their promised redistribution of climate finance to fund energy transitions—and the industries that fuel them—around the world.

Such redistribution is inhibited by various factors, including patents that protect intellectual property rights and obstruct technology transfer from north to south; international economic institutions that prohibit trade protections or subsidies for infant industries (despite the global north’s copious use of these in its own economic development); and agreements such as bilateral investment treaties that prioritize investors’ rights to profits over sovereign governments’ rights to regulate and shape economic activity within their borders. Loosening any of these constraints, whether through democratizing the governance of institutions like the International Monetary Fund or reforming investor-state dispute settlements, which enable foreign investors to sue governments, would give global south policymakers the fiscal and legal breathing room to build out manufacturing sectors. So would forgiving the mounting levels of debt crushing governments in low-income countries.

Such a fundamental reorganization of the world economy may seem like a utopian idea. But in this moment of global upheaval and uncertainty, it is vital that social movements, progressive politicians, and policy experts question the consensus on critical minerals before it congeals into orthodoxy. And it is equally vital to envision a different renewable energy transition, with supply chain justice at its center.