Exploring the Negative Impacts of Mining Minerals

 

Lithium production, its negative impacts and distribution globally

Text by Nella Koivula

Global lithium production 

Lithium is one of the most important minerals used for green technologies and therefore an important mineral to consider regarding sustainable development of the future. Due to the shift from fossil fuel vehicles to electric vehicles, the demand for lithium is estimated to explode in the future. According to Roskill, in 2019, rechargeable batteries that are used in most green technologies, accounted for 54% of total lithium demand (Roskill, 2020). Statista reports that  an estimated total of 82,000 metric tons of lithium was produced globally in 2020 while ten years earlier production was just 28,000 metric tons (Garside, 2021). Similarly, according to Roskill lithium consumption for rechargeable batteries increased 14% from 2007 to 2017 (Roskill, 2020).

The rapidly growing demand for lithium-ion batteries raises the question whether there is enough lithium in the world for the transition to green technologies? Some argue that the global resources of lithium will not be enough for the future demand and therefore, there is a need to find solutions for the recycling of materials (Hunt, 2015; Willuhn, 2020). Lithium demand is expected to grow 5 times higher in the next decade and due to this the EU has added lithium to the list of critical metals (Kriittiset materiaalit, 2021). This massive demand for lithium is consequently reflected on lithium prices which are estimated to rise in coming years (Mining.com, 2021).

Currently the biggest lithium producers are Australia, Chile, China, Argentina, Brazil, Zimbabwe and Portugal (see map below)(Garside, 2021). There are two main ways of lithium extraction: from hard rock deposits and from salt lake deposits. In South America lithium carbonate is extracted from salt lake deposits from where it is evaporated and washed with polyvinyl chloride in shallow ponds (Garrett, 2004 as cited in Wanger, 2011). Lithium extraction from salt lake deposits demands a lot of water which can be costly for the environment and local communities because these areas already suffer from drought. South America’s lithium boom has potential to bring economic growth and development for the local communities and reduce poverty. However, profits rarely go back to the local communities and increasing mining in these areas can be costly for the environment and for the livelihoods of indigenous people.

More than half of the world’s lithium production comes from South America, mainly from Argentina and Chile (Alves, 2021). Currently Chile is the lithium-richest country in the world with 43.7 percent share of total global reserves. While Chile and Argentina have seen economic growth from the mining sector, Bolivia, even with estimated world’s largest lithium reserves, is still one of Latin America’s poorest nations. Bolivia has approximately 9 million tons of lithium reserves, but they have not yet been exploited or used commercially due to high altitude and lack of appropriate infrastructure. However, the government is eager to jump into the bandwagon of mineral production and make Bolivia one of the world’s top-producing nations. (Bloomberg News, 2018.)

Lithium can also be mined from pegmatite ores from where it is processed of spodumene, the main lithium carrier in magmatic rocks (Bridge 2004 as cited in Wanger, 2011). This is done in, for example, Zimbabwe and Canada. Also, the premeditated mine in Finland would extract lithium from hard rock deposits. Similarly to salt flat extraction, lithium mining from pegmatite ores is costly for the environment because it causes physical land rearrangements and waste products which can damage soil, biodiversity and existing ecosystems, (Bridge 2004 as cited in Wanger, 2011).

From the lithium-richest countries lithium is often shipped to China and North Korea to be used in smartphones and green technology. China is an important manufacturer, consumer and supplier of lithium batteries (The Wall Street Journal, 2021). In 2020 China produced only 11% of the raw material but refined 60% of the lithium globally (Kriittiset materiaalit, 2021; IEEE, 2012). Therefore, China is highly dependent on imports and it is the world’s largest lithium consumer accounting for approximately 50% of the global total (S&P Global Market Intelligence, 2021).

As can be seen from the map, global lithium production is currently distributed quite unevenly. From a domestic perspective, Finland is aiming to start producing lithium self-sufficiently in the coming years.

Case of South America: negative impacts of lithium extraction from salt flats

South America is one of the most important geographical areas for lithium production. Chile, Argentina and Bolivia form a ‘lithium triangle’ which is responsible for the vast majority of global lithium production (Alves, 2021). Lithium is found in the salt flats in high mountains where lithium carbonate is produced by evaporation and washing (Garrett, 2004 as cited in Wanger, 2011). Multiple studies have shown that mining poses severe reproductive social and environmental threats that may have long-term consequences to biodiversity and the livelihoods of local communities (Sonter & Ali & Watson, 2018; Mancini & Sala, 2018). For example, one of the world’s largest lithium extraction site, Salar de Atacama in Chile has seen environmental degradation of salt flats, human settlements and national reserves in terms of vegetation decline, elevating daytime temperatures, decrease of soil moisture and increasing drought conditions during the past 20 years (Liu & Agusdinata & Myint, 2019). Moreover, negative side effects of mining include for example air pollution and water shortages because lithium extraction from salt flats – in an already arid environment – demands a lot of water (DW, 2018).

Water shortage and competition over water between local communities and mining companies can cause major problems. For example, in Chile there have been conflicts with mining companies and indigenous people over water resources in Atacama salt flats (Sherwood, 2018). In Chile, water resources and management are completely privatized. Mining companies such as SQM and Albemarle own the rights to use water in the region and the state has been reluctant to ban water extraction for mining (Sherwood, 2018). Since Atacama desert is one of the driest regions on Earth and lithium extraction from salt flats uses a lot of water, lithium mining has significant negative impacts on the water reserves, indigenous people and vulnerable species in the surroundings (DW, 2018) Lithium extraction can dry out rivers, streams and wetlands, contaminate drinking water and even damage entire ecosystems (DW, 2018). For example, the ecosystem of flamingos is endangered because of an increasing amount of microbial biomass and toxic cyanobacteria due to mining (Bauld 1981 as cited in Wanger 2011; Gutierrez & Navedo & Soriano-Redondo, 2018).

In addition, lithium extraction in South America can be costly for the local communities. As mentioned before, competition over water and degradation of the environment can disturb livelihoods of local communities. There is a so-called resource paradox: on the one hand lithium production can bring wealth, economic growth and job opportunities but on the other hand this may be costly when the mineral reserves finally run out and there are no longer environmental resources or jobs for the local communities (NowThis World, 2017).

Case of Finland: Domestic lithium production in Kaustinen

Finland is attempting to start a domestic lithium production in the following years (see map below). Mining company Keliber is planning Europe’s largest lithium mine in Kaustinen with which it aims to answer the rapidly growing demand of lithium in the era of renewable energy, electric vehicles and green technology (Keliber, 2021). Keliber is owned by Finnish investment companies, private companies and leading international mining company Sibanye-Stillwater and Norwegian Nordin Mining ASA. The estimated time for mine to start operating is in 2024. In addition, Keliber has applied permission for a lithium chemical plant in the mining area of Kokkola where lithium can be refined and developed into lithium hydroxide that can be used for lithium batteries for green technologies (Keliber, 2021).

Lithium mine in Kaustinen would be internationally remarkable since it would be the first of its kind in Europe. According to Keliber the mining site would last for approximately 13 years in large scale production and it has resources of approximately 11 million tons of lithium. Moreover, it is estimated to take charge of 3-5% of global lithium production (Keliber, 2021). According to some calculations this would be enough for approximately 200 000 – 250 000 electric cars (Yle Uutiset, 2019). Therefore, could lithium mine in Kaustinen be a way to shorten the supply chain of lithium and allow Finland to be better involved in the global responsibility for green technology mineral production? A key question is whether the amount of lithium that can be produced in 13 years and its capacity to produce batteries for green technology is enough to overcome the negative environmental effects that the mine could cause?

According to Environmental Impact Assessment, the mine is assessed to cause relatively little damage for the environment (Keliber, 2021). However, there would be some impacts on land and soil, ground and surface waters, vegetation, organisms and biodiversity. It can also cause damage for habitats of some species which is why Keliber is considering finding new habitats for some endangered species such as moor frogs and golden eagles. (Keliber, 2021.) In addition, there are concerns about the negative effects on fish and fishing in the surrounding areas (Yle Uutiset, 2020). The upside is that the mines would be far away from residential areas which decreases the risk of negative impacts on the surrounding communities (Keliber, 2021).

After the Talvivaara incident, negative impacts of mining on surrounding waters is a common concern in Finland. According to EIA, mining operations in Kaustinen are not estimated to have significant effects on the condition or acidity of the waters. However, even though ELY Centre estimated the effects to the surface waters as small, waste waters and by-products is an issue that needs careful assessment. (Keliber, 2021). Wastewaters were initially aimed to be disposed of by evaporation but with technological advantages wastewaters can be more efficiently disposed of by using EWT (electric-chemical processing) and DAF (microflotation). Subsequently remaining wastewater will be sanitized in Hopeakivenlahti wastewater treatment plant where it will be released back to the ocean. Wastewaters will contain small amounts of lithium, but the concentration of minerals should be well below harmful level and once it mixes with sea water it should not harm any species that are exposed to it long-term (Keliber, 2021). In addition, Keliber aims to utilize waste rocks as much as possible in construction of Kokkola harbour and mining areas by exploiting cleantech processes in collaboration with Outotec. (Keliber, 2021). Keliber’s objective is to rehabilitate mining areas into biodiverse environments as quickly as possible by turning the pits into lakes and using the piled soil for landscaping and vegetation purposes. (Keliber, 2021).

Although Keliber has potential to respond to domestic and European demand for green technology, will Finland remain only as a producer of raw materials for green technology batteries? Finland has the capacity to shorten the supply chain which is also what Keliber is aiming for with the development of chemical plants in the Kokkola region where lithium can be used for batteries. Therefore, the lithium mine in Kaustinen has a lot of potential to increase Finland’s share of global lithium production for green technologies.

Conclusion

Overall, the sustainability of mining is controversial because mines are located unevenly, often in developing countries even though most of those benefiting from green technologies are in the Western world. Therefore, most of the environmental and social spillover effects of the mining industry accumulate to developing countries while some societies benefit from the ability to transform into carbon-free lifestyles without negative effects on their environment. Thus, it is important to consider how much increasing demand of minerals and metals for the green technology transition can lead to exploitation of resources and negative social, environmental and economic spillover effects in certain parts of the world. This raises a question: How can we take more global responsibility for the negative spillover effects of the mining industry to ensure sustainable development equally? As mentioned before, domestic lithium production in Finland could be one way to increase Finland’s and Europe’s responsibility for mining for green technologies.

References

Alves, B. (2021) Lithium in South America — Statistics and Facts. Statista. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/topics/5894/lithium-in-south-america/

Benchmark Mineral Intelligence (2020) Lithium in 2020: Prices, Coronavirus and Tesla. Retrieved from https://www.benchmarkminerals.com/membership/lithium-in-2020-prices-coronavirus-and-tesla/

Bloomberg News (2018) Big lithium riches lure first-time miner to Bolivia’s salt flat. Retrieved from http://www.mining.com/web/big-lithium-riches-lure-first-time-miner-bolivias-salt-flat/

DW (2018) Chile’s lithium – blessing or curse? Retrieved from https://www.dw.com/cda/en/chiles-lithium-blessing-or-curse/a-43721539

Elinkeino-, liikenne- ja ympäristökeskus (2020) Yhteysviranomaisen perusteltu päätelmä litiumkemiantehdas -hankkeen ympäristövaikutusten arviontiselostuksesta.

Garside, M. (2021) Global lithium mine production 2010-2020. Statista. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/606684/world-production-of-lithium/

Garside, M. (2021) Major countries in worldwide lithium mine production from 2010 to 2020. Statista. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/268789/countries-with-the-largest-production-output-of-lithium/

Gutierrez, J. S. & Navedo, J. G. & Soriano-Redondo, A. (2018) Chilean Atacama site imperilled by lithium mining. Nature. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05233-7

Helsingin Sanomat (2021) Sähköautojen räjähdysmäisesti kasvanut suosio on johtanut litium-pulaan – Akkumetallin hinta on jo noussut vauhdilla, ja pian sen hinta nousee pilviin. Retrieved from https://www.hs.fi/paivanlehti/22032021/art-2000007872976.html

Hunt, T. (2015) Is There Enough Lithium to Maintain the Growth of the Lithium-Ion Battery Market? Gtm. Retrieved from https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/is-there-enough-lithium-to-maintain-the-growth-of-the-lithium-ion-battery-m

IEEE International Symposium on Sustainable Systems and Technology (2012) Prediction of various discarded lithium batteries in China. DOI: 10.1109/ISSST.2012.6228021

Kaunda, R. B. (2020) Potential environmental impacts of lithium mining, Journal of Energy & Natural Resources Law, 38:3, 237-244, DOI: 10.1080/02646811.2020.1754596

Keliber (2021) Lithium markets. Retrieved from https://www.keliber.fi/en/production-and-products/lithium-markets/. Cited 24.4.2021.

Keliber (2021) Mineral resources and ore reserves. Retrieved from https://www.keliber.fi/en/geology/mineral-resources-and-ore-reserves/- Cited 24.4.2021.

Keliber (2021) YVA. Retrieved from https://www.keliber.fi/ajankohtaista/raportit-ja-julkaisut/yva/ Cited 24.4.2021.

Keliber (2021) Keliber päivitti Kokkolan kemiantehtaan prosessia ja YVA-selostusta. Retrieved from https://www.keliber.fi/ajankohtaista/tiedotteet-ja-julkaisut/81C971D5188FA114/. Cited 24.4.2021.

Keliber (2021) We respect people and the environment. Retrieved from https://www.keliber.fi/en/sustainability/we-respect-people-and-the-environment/. Cited 24.4.2021.

Kriittiset materiaalit (2021) Litium. Retrieved from https://www.kriittisetmateriaalit.fi/litium/.

Liu, W. & Agusdinata, D. & Myint, S. (2019) Spatiotemporal patterns of lithium mining and environmental degradation in the Atacama Salt Flat, Chile. International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation. 80. 145-156. DOI: 10.1016/j.jag.2019.04.016

Mancini, L. & Sala, S. (2018). Social impact assessment in the mining sector: Review and comparison of findicators frameworks. Resources Policy 57, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resourpol.2018.02.002

Mining.com (2021) Lithium prices continue to soar — up 88% in 2021. Retrieved from https://www.mining.com/lithium-prices-continue-to-soar-up-88-in-2021/

NowThis World (2017) South America’s Lithium Boom: A Blessing Or A Curse? Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsxjjLbn28Q

Roskill (2020) Lithium: Outlook to 2030, 17th Edition. Retrieved from https://roskill.com/market-report/lithium/.

Sherwood, D. (2018) In Chilean desert, global thirst for lithium is fueling a ‘water war’. Reuters. Retrieve from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-chile-lithium-water/in-chilean-desert-global-thirst-for-lithium-is-fueling-a-water-war-idUSKCN1LE16T

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From outsourced to insourced: sustainable development goals, green technology transformations and critical minerals in the European Union

Text by Niina Asikanius

In the face of ever-growing environmental degradation and pressures to seek transformative enough solutions to sustainability issues, the European Union has put forth action plans and strategies to seek sustainable pathways to growth. Already in 2010, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the EU introduced the Europe 2020 strategy, where economic and social progress as well as structural changes were ambitiously being planned to carry out through three mutually reinforcing priorities: smart growth, sustainable growth and inclusive growth. This strategy also includes seven flagship initiatives, one of which is “Resource efficient Europe” where focus is put on the decoupling of economic growth from the use of resources, shift towards a low carbon economy as well as increasing the use of renewable energy sources and promoting energy efficiency and modernizing the transport sector. (European Commission1, 2010, 3-4). A newer strategy, the European Green Deal, has been designed to further tackle climate and environment related challenges. The overall aim of this deal is to create a growth strategy that will transform the EU into a fair and prosperous society by 2050. Visions for the strategy include resource-efficiency, competitive economy as well as a promise of no net greenhouse gas emissions, continuing along earlier ideas of decoupling economic growth from resource use. The Green deal is also an integral part of the European Commission’s strategy to implement not only the United Nations sustainable development goals but also the United Nations 2030 Agenda among other political guidelines. In order to reach these ambitious climate neutrality and sustainability goals, the EC intends to mobilize industry, where resource extraction and processing of materials cause half of greenhouse gas emissions and almost all of biodiversity loss and water stress, and shift from a linear pattern of production and dependence of extracted new materials to a sustainable model of inclusive growth. The EC has also recognized the importance of access to resources which is a strategic security question for Europe and the Green Deal. Critical raw materials are recognized as necessary materials for clean technologies and other applications. Of importance seems to be diversification of both primary and secondary sources for the abovementioned visions to  become reality (European Commission 2, 2019). In addition, the EC has also proposed to modernize EU legislation on batteries to promote sustainable practices and its Circular Economy Action Plan. The proposal includes aspects such as sustainable life cycles for batteries placed in the EU market and mandatory requirements which all batteries need to meet in order to have the chance to be placed in the EU market (European Commission3, 2020).

Critical raw materials: lithium

With this new focus on transformations also comes the question of what the best tools are to execute necessary change. One sector that has gained growing attention is the mineral and mining industry because of its relation to green technology transitions, particularly the battery industry. According to the EU, batteries are a key technology in the transition to climate neutrality, and even to circular economy as well as sustainable mobility and in cutting down pollution. Because of the permeating role of batteries in our lives, the demand for them is projected to grow rapidly. EU also seems to acknowledge that increasing deployment of batteries in everyday functions means that the batteries market is a strategic one at the global level, and because of this the union, in order to guarantee a smooth green transition for the European region, wants to take a more active role in the sustainable production, deployment and waste management of all batteries placed in the EU market (European Commission4, 2020).

The importance of batteries is growing day by day with the growing demand for digitalization.

What will be focused on next are one of the key elements of battery technology: lithium. OECD predicts that extraction of metals and the processing of key metals are going to at least double between 2017-2060. This is driven by the growing scale of materials use (OECD, 2019, 16). The global use of lithium has increased, along with other metals. Some link this increase in usage with China’s economic reforms and development. China also dominates the lithium product manufacturing industry due to its manufacturing capacity and cheap products. In addition, Chinese manufacturing companies Tianqi and Ganfeng Lithium control almost half of the world’s lithium production. Because of this dominant market role as well as previous limitations of lithium export quotas, the reliance on China’s operations in lithium production could mean potential supply security issues (Kavanagh, Keohane, Garcia Cabellos, Lloyd, & Cleary, 2018, 2-3) Lithium, with cobalt and natural graphite, have been placed on the list of critical raw materials by the EU. In addition, the EU only produces 1% of all battery raw materials and only has 8% share of the supply of battery materials. However, supply of lithium isn’t expected to be a major issue in battery supply chain in short or medium term, but for the long term an increase from current low prices are thought to be necessary to support the development of new production capacity (Bobba, Carrara, Huisman, Mathieux, Pavel, 2020, 19-20). Currently, there are also gaps in the production chains of lithium in Europe. Lithium mined in Europe is still processed outside of the EU so vulnerabilities in the supply chain need addressing to avoid disruption to manufacturing processes (European Commission5, 2020). Circular economy practices are also crucial to develop and implement. If levels of reuse and recycling remain low, mineral depletion may become an issue. This issue is especially driven by the growing use of batteries in electric vehicles. According to some scenarios, even if lithium recycling was increased to 30%, the current estimated reserves would have been extracted by 2050 (de Blas, Mediavilla, Capellán-Pérez, & Duce, 2020, 13).

The complicated geographies of critical raw materials such as lithium then can create geopolitical risks as well as economic risks if smooth supply of materials is interrupted and markets can be manipulated by singular, dominant actors. For the EU this means that diversifying the materials supply is needed. This can be executed through secure trade agreements with third countries and economic diplomacy for lithium and other raw materials. Instead of focusing on improving supply risks in outsourced production chains, improving manufacturing opportunities in the EU is also an option. This would mean increase of mining, extraction and refining of key raw materials inside the region as well as the creation of a properly functioning ecosystem for battery manufacturing for local value chains to flourish but also to attract foreign investment. Other recommendations include better recycling activities, promotion of research and development investments as well as fostering international collaboration and standardization activities (Bobba, Carrara, Huisman, Mathieux, Pavel, 2020, 23). Somewhat in line with these recommendations, The EC has set its goals towards the increase of sustainable supply of raw materials in Europe by bringing together stakeholders along strategic value chains and industrial ecosystems (European Commission6). For example, new industrial alliances such as European Raw Materials Alliance and European Battery Alliance have been founded to mobilize public and private investment as well as improve EU resilience in rare earths value chain (European Commission5, 2020). So, the EU seems to have developed its intraregional strategies regarding critical raw materials to on one hand respond to supply risks and on the other hand to deal with economic importance of critical raw materials as well as sustainable futures.

Criticisms

EU’s raw materials strategies have also faced criticism for its lack of considerations of environmental and social impacts. The European Environment Bureau has called the EU’s ambitious goals of self-reliance and the increase of intraregional production of critical materials and batteries a double-edged sword, arguing that environmental and societal costs must be properly assessed (Anastasio, 2020). Moreover, there have been growing concerns among environmentalists over a mining boom in the EU region since the growing relative scarcity and volatile global political conditions has led the EU to seek a more secure supply of materials from Europe. So, the outsourced supply chains of materials from mining are now thought of to be better produced inside the region. In order to make these plans work, the EC hopes to increase public acceptance of mining with the argument that resource extraction is necessary to meet climate goals and offering a narrative where mining is associated with sustainability. (Marin, 2020).

But how could an industry like mining even be marketed as something sustainable when the environmental and social impacts of the industry are known to be an issue? Lithium mining for example may have potential environmental impacts both in extraction and in processing. Concerns are related to air, water and soil pollution as well as the depletion of water resources. Research has also shown that environmental impact evaluation tools, such as life-cycle assessment, are limited in mining because of a lack of properly defined quantifiable impact categories and functional units. On a more positive note however, evidence does also suggest that lithium mining methods can be improved in a way that protects social and environmental systems without compromising economics and that alternative technologies also offer alternative ways to improve lithium extraction and processing  (Kaunda, 2020, 241-243). Moreover, there are also concerns over the promotion of mining activities inside the EU because of possible social inequalities within Europe that mining projects entail.

Mining projects have the potential of putting the lives of people and wildlife at risk since mines are often set up in areas near mountains and rivers. An example of such a scenario is an EU-backed lithium mine in Caceres, Spain, Infinity Lithium’s San José de Valdeflórez lithium project, where the mine would be located a mere 800 meters from the town’s historic center which is a World Heritage site and an important location for tourism. Locals have voiced their concerns over their right of self-determination and fears of not being heard in the process of developing such mining activities (Marin, 2020, Macintosh, 2018). Environmental justice is also something to consider. The mining activities in Caceres have been reported to lack necessary permits and have even been prohibited by Caceres own General Urban Development Plan. Also, a letter of opposition signed by 134 organizations, a letter directed at President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, has also tried to highlight the worries of local communities over the mining project’s likely impacts on the environment, water as well as central local economic activities of tourism. The mining project is also understood to go against the intentions of EU’s Biodiversity and European Green Deal strategies. Concerns have also been raised over the mine’s lack of social license to operate, SLO. The EU’s goals to make new frontiers of extractive industries in Europe must also then include the tackling of issues surrounding lack of proper standards, transparency, and community consultation if community opposition are to be avoided (Rhoades, 2020). Similar stories come from a village of Covas do Barroso in Portugal. Plans to excavate lithium form the largest estimated deposits of lithium in Western Europe are against the interests of locals (Carter, 2021). Aspects related to social inequalities and environmental justice are then issues the EU needs to work on if the union wants to see just, inclusive transitions to sustainable, carbon neutral lifestyles. Calls have also been made to revise the Circular Economy Action Plan to correspond more accurately to true circular economy objectives (Friends of the Earth Europe, 2020). The cases discussed above are just a few examples of how the EU’s visions of low-carbon futures might not always be welcomed in Europe. Surely, new mining projects will be needed for the ambitious climate and sustainability goals, but if negative impacts of mining are most greatly felt in local communities, it raises a question of will new mining projects lead to more inequality in Europe with the price of a more equal market role for the EU in the critical raw materials market. In the end, is the growing mining boom really about inclusive and just futures or just a short-term technical fix in the long-term battle against climate change?

Finland and lithium

For a transition to a carbon neutral economy to happen smoothly, the supply of materials needed for technology that enables said carbon neutrality must also be smooth. In the case of lithium supply, security has become a top priority for technology companies. This new focus on secure supply has resulted in joint ventures among exploration companies and technology companies to guarantee a reliable and diverse supply of lithium for manufactures and suppliers. Finland is listed as a potential location for mineral-based lithium sources (United States Geological Survey, 2020). But will Finland face similar events related to mining activities as in other above-mentioned examples from Europe? Most likely not to the same extent. A current lithium mining project of Keliber in Kaustinen and Kokkola seems to have been received positively, and reports indicate that due to its remote location the mining projects won’t have many negative impacts on the surrounding community. Moreover, when in operation, Keliber will become an important regional employer. Environmental assessments on various factors such as groundwaters, surface waters and vegetation seem to also indicate that environmental impacts will be small or moderate (Keliber, 2020). The Keliber project has been discussed in the media to be exceptionally unproblematic in terms of location and the size of the mineral deposits. Some concerns have been raised over the possible issues of profit distribution but the general opinion about it also seems to lean towards more positive (Toivonen, 2021). However, local landowners as well as the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation have voiced their concerns about Keliber’s environmental permit procedures and the possible negative impacts of the mining project to the local environment and communities (Slotte, 2019, Vihanta, 2018). But overall, in terms of lithium mining, Finland may fare rather well without major negative impacts. The Keliber mining project seems to be positively received and has gone through a strict environmental impact assessment. However, negative spillovers concerning lithium can’t be discussed further because the Keliber mining project isn’t in operation yet, but the process up till now seems to lean towards having more positive than negative impacts in the Finnish context.

References

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Kavanagh, L., Keohane, J., Garcia Cabellos, G., Lloyd, A., & Cleary, J. (2018). Global lithium Sources—Industrial use and future in the electric vehicle industry: A review. Resources (Basel), 7(3), 57. doi:10.3390/resources7030057

Keliber. (2020). Keski-Pohjanmaan litiumprovinssin laajennuksen YVA-selostus.https://www.keliber.fi/site/assets/files/2386/yva_selostus_keliber_2020_24112020.pdf. Accessed: 29.4.2021.

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Mining of nickel: Negative Environmental Impacts

Text by Eemi Saarinen

Why is nickel so crucial for green technology?

When it comes to green technology, there is often a lot of talk about lithium-ion batteries, which serve as a power source to electric cars, for example. However, despite its name, lithium-ion batteries are actually mostly produced with nickel, alongside cobalt and lithium. This has been the case so far, but there are also some actions against the use of nickel. In February 2021 the owner of Tesla, Elon Musk, announced that Tesla will in some cars replace nickel with iron (Li, 2021). Previously he has pleaded for greater production of nickel. Despite the decision of the electric car giant’s decision, the need of nickel in creating green technology is still massive. How nickel is produced globally and in Finland, and what might be the negative environmental spillover effects? How sustainable is nickel production when examining it with the SDGs of the UN?

Nickel globally and in Finland

Globally the mining production of nickel was 2,7 million tons in 2019 (Government of Canada, 2021). The growth has been significant since 2010 (not constant, though), when production of nickel was only 1,6 million tons annually. Although we are interested in nickel as material used in batteries, it must be mentioned that batteries account only 4 % of global use of nickel (Government of Canada, 2021). 71 % of nickel is used to produce stainless steel, so the electric car boom does not account for very much of the global rise of nickel production. The sovereign leader of nickel production globally is Indonesia, accounting for 29,8 % of total production. The five next greatest producers are Philippines, Russia, New Caledonia, Canada and Australia, as can be seen in the table below:

Country Mining of nickel (thousand tons) % of global mining
1. Indonesia 800 29,8
2. Philippines 420 15,7
3. Russia 270 10,1
4. New Caledonia 220 8,2
5. Canada 181 6,8
6. Australia 180 6,7
7. China 110 4,1
8. Brazil 67 2,5
9. Cuba 51 1,9
Other countries 384 14,3

The production of nickel in Finland has grown over the past decade. Right now, there are three major mines in Finland mining nickel: Terrafame’s mine in Talvivaara, and Boliden’s mines in Kylylahti and Kevitsa (Vasara, 2019). In 2018, the total amount of nickel mined was 43 752 tons. 212 069 tons of nickel concentrate was produced. In addition, Boliden has a nickel smelter in Harjavalta, which uses nickel concentrates from the Kevitsa mine (Boliden, 2020). The smelter’s importance is significant, because it is the only nickel smelter in Western Europe. Nornickel also produces nickel products in Harjavalta.

Negative environmental impacts of nickel and the SDGs

Mining and smelting of nickel may have many environmental impacts. In Finland, there are some examples of environmental problems caused by nickel. In 2014, Nornickel’s factory leaked 66 tons of nickel sulfate in Kokemäki river, causing the death of millions of endangered freshwater pearl mussels (Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment, 2017). The leak led to weakening of the entire river ecosystem, because mussels filter for example plankton and alga from the water. Concentration of nickel in the water exceeded the environmental quality norm four-hundredfold, therefore the overall quality of water was affected enormously. This example makes it clear that mining activities needed to create “green technology” can be all but green. Of course, this example illustrates a case of a single catastrophic event, but it is important to assess negative environmental spillover effects produced by everyday activity.

Mining can cause long-term negative impacts on the environment.

Even when nothing disastrous happens, there are some factors that can make one question, if mining nickel for green technology is so green after all. Nickel must be extracted from the ore with smelting, which requires a high amount of energy and produces emissions (Dunn, Gaines, Kelly, James & Gallagher, 2014). Sulfur oxide emissions are usually connected to smelting of nickel. For example in Canada sulfur dioxide emissions have caused some serious environmental damage: acid rain emissions, heavy metal soil contamination, wetland acidification and biodiversity loss, to name a few (Dunn et al., 2014). When it comes to the high energy intensity of smelting, it is important to consider whether the energy used is renewable? Because if not, creating “green technology” using high amounts of nonrenewable energy might be just another form of greenwashing. Emissions and amount of energy used relate also to laterite ore, from which nickel is often extracted. Mudd (2010) points out sustainability problems of the nickel industry: there is an evident decline in long-term ore rates in the nickel industry, meaning that more and more laterite must be processed to extract the desired amount of nickel. This is problematic in terms of energy consumption, especially when the energy used is not renewable.

There are a few main environmental issues of nickel production, which are in contrast with the UN’s SDGs. Violating the SDGs can be challenging to observe. There are some concrete targets set by the UN, alongside global indicators. However, they might not be sufficiently specific to address mining/local issues. Nevertheless, it is probable that nickel producing might be in contrast with the following environmental SDGs:

6: Clean water and sanitation, 7: Affordable and clean energy, 13: Climate action, 14: Life below water and 15: Life on land

It is evident that production of nickel may pollute water and damage life below water. The mussel deaths in Finland, and damage to soil and wildlife both below water and on land in Canada show that green technology does not come without risks for the environment. One could also question the positive effect on creating affordable and green energy and climate action, if nickel is not mined and refined using renewable energy. At least we must be aware of the possible negative environmental impacts of nickel, when we are creating so called green technology.

References

Boliden (2020) Boliden harjavalta. Retrieved from https://www.boliden.com/operations/smelters/boliden-harjavalta

Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment. (2017, June 21). Kokemäenjoen kesän 2014 nikkelipäästö aiheutti korjattavaksi määrätyn merkittävän vesistö- ja luontovahingon (Varsinais-Suomi ja Satakunta). Retrieved from https://www.ely-keskus.fi/-/kokemaenjoen-kesan-2014-nikkelipaasto-aiheutti-korjattavaksi-maaratyn-merkittavan-vesisto-ja-luontovahingon-varsinais-suomi-ja-satakunta-#.WUpAd2YUmUk

Dunn, J. B., Gaines, L., Kelly, J. C., James, C., & Gallagher, K. G. (2015). The significance of Li-ion batteries in electric vehicle life-cycle energy and emissions and recycling’s role in its reduction. Energy & Environmental Science, 8(1), 158-168. https://doi.org:10.1039/C4EE03029J

Government of Canada (2021, February 22). Nickel facts. Retrieved from https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/minerals-mining/minerals-metals-facts/nickel-facts/20519

Mudd, G. M. (2010). Global trends and environmental issues in nickel mining: Sulfides versus laterites. Ore Geology Reviews, 38(1-2), 9-26. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oregeorev.2010.05.003

Li, Y. (2021, February 26). Musk Says Nickel Is ‘Biggest Concern’ For Electric-Car Batteries. Bloomberg. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-02-25/musk-says-nickel-is-biggest-concern-for-electric-car-batteries

Vasara, H. (2019). Toimialaraportit – Kaivoteollisuus Report prepared for Ministry of employment and the economy of Finland https://julkaisut.valtioneuvosto.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/161860/TEM_2019_57.pdf

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