The most common definition of sustainable development is: development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Brundtland, 1987). United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals represent the current global understanding on sustainable development (UN General Assembly, 2015). However, the SDGs are not perfect. They have been criticised for focusing only on measurable targets, contradicting themselves and defining development within too narrow frames (Liverman, 2018a; Liverman, 2018b; Nightingale, 2018).
On the other hand, the main value of the SDGs lies in the way they have gained global advocacy. Formulating goals, while considering all the different challenges, interests, cultures and beliefs globally, is not easy. For the purpose of reaching international consensus, complex questions are destined to be simplified. The SDGs have managed to set the global world to a common course, and offered a framework within which to make decisions and take action (Glass & Newig, 2018; UN General Assembly, 2015).
One of the goals, SDG 13, urges the international community to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (UN General Assembly, 2015). In the Paris Agreement, signatories pledged to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, limiting global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. In practice, reaching this target requires reaching zero emissions. Since one of the main GHGs is CO2, this is often referred to as reaching carbon neutrality (IPCC, 2018). The key is to stop using fossil fuels. Since the world has been depending on fossil fuels since the early 19th century, this shift contains many challenges (Salvia, 2021).
Now the main question is: what are we going to replace the fossil fuels with? So far, high hopes have been put on green technology, also called clean technology (Yang et al., 2020). These solutions do meet the requirements of being less GHG intensive, or even carbon neutral, which should solve the problem. However, their manufacturing does require minerals, especially rare earth metals (World Bank Group, 2017). We are fundamentally heading towards a future, where instead of using fossil fuels as our major energy source, we are fueling our society with solar and wind energy through the use of mineral based batteries. This has also been recognized in the SDGs, more specifically SDG 7 (UN General Assembly, 2015).
As a societally significant industry, mining has the potential to contribute to the local economy and employment (Tiainen et al., 2015). But there are also many problems related to mining, ranging from ecosystem destruction to human rights violations, that cannot be ignored (Everingham, 2012; Mudd, 2010). Moreover, the GHG emissions of primary mineral and metal production have been estimated to equal 10% of the total global energy-related emissions in 2018 (Golroudbary et al., 2019). Both the positive and the negative aspects of mining are going to be discussed in more detail later in this blog.
Since mining is an extractive industry, it is fundamentally unsustainable through the eyes of the Brundtland definition (Brundtland, 1987; Tiainen et al., 2015). However, in their article Tiainen et al. specify two different levels of sustainability, “strong” and “weak”. They recognize, that due to its extractive nature, meeting the requirements of “strong” sustainability is out of reach for the mining industry, but it can substitute for the value lost in environmental exploitation by promoting long-term benefits (economic, social or environmental) that are equal to or greater than the lost values, and aim towards “weak” sustainability (Amezaga et al., 2011; Tiainen et al., 2015). A lot of hope has also been put on circular economy solutions, urban mining and mineral recycling. These issues will be discussed in more detail in other blog posts. In a nutshell, the mineral recycling industry is still taking its first steps, and some of the main challenges are the lack of infrastructure, operators and regulations, the market for recycled materials is still small and most of the products that we would like to recycle in the future are not made easily recyclable today (Nilsén, 2020; Xavier et al., 2019).
Achieving carbon neutrality in a sustainable way is not as easy as shifting our energy source from fossil fuels to green energy solutions, while continuing business as usual. Drastically reducing the amount of resources we are consuming is crucial. That brings us back to the core idea of sustainability and to the Sustainable Development Goals, more precisely SDG 12 (Brundtland, 1987; UN General Assembly, 2015).
As a conclusion, the SDGs have their limitations, but they are a globally agreed framework. The idea to fuel our society with green energy through mineral based batteries, instead of with fossil fuels, has its problems as well. But it is the most achievable solution for reaching carbon neutrality available today. The important thing is to not overlook the negative impacts the increasing mining activity has on nature and on human society. We do not want to start another fire while trying to put out the first one.
Amezaga, J. M., Rötting, T. S., Younger, P. L., Nairn, R. W., Noles, A. J., Oyarzún, R., & Quintanilla, J. (2011). A rich vein? Mining and the pursuit of sustainability.
Brundtland, G. (1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. United Nations General Assembly document A/42/427.
Everingham, J. A. (2012). Towards social sustainability of mining: The contribution of new directions in impact assessment and local governance. Greener Management International, (57), 91-103.
Glass, L. M., & Newig, J. (2019). Governance for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals: How important are participation, policy coherence, reflexivity, adaptation and democratic institutions?. Earth System Governance, 2, 100031.
Golroudbary, S. R., Calisaya-Azpilcueta, D., & Kraslawski, A. (2019). The life cycle of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from critical minerals recycling: Case of lithium-ion batteries. Procedia CIRP, 80, 316-321.
IPCC, 2018: Summary for Policymakers. In: Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, H. O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J. B. R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M. I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, T. Waterfield (eds.)].
Liverman, D. M. (2018a). Geographic perspectives on development goals: Constructive engagements and critical perspectives on the MDGs and the SDGs. Dialogues in Human Geography, 8(2), 168-185.
Liverman, D. M. (2018b). Development goals and geography: An update and response. Dialogues in Human Geography, 8(2), 206-211.
Mudd, G. M. (2010). The environmental sustainability of mining in Australia: key mega-trends and looming constraints. Resources Policy, 35(2), 98-115.
Nightingale, A. J. (2018). Geography’s contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals: Ambivalence and performance. Dialogues in human geography, 8(2), 196-200.
Nilsén, F. (2020). Vihreän tulevaisuuden materiaalit. Materia, 3/2020, 44-47.
Salvia, M., Reckien, D., Pietrapertosa, F., Eckersley, P., Spyridaki, N. A., Krook-Riekkola, A., … & Heidrich, O. (2021). Will climate mitigation ambitions lead to carbon neutrality? An analysis of the local-level plans of 327 cities in the EU. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 135, 110253.
Tiainen, H., Sairinen, R., & Sidorenko, O. (2015). Governance of Sustainable Mining in Arctic Countries: Finland, Sweden, Greenland & Russia. Arctic yearbook, 2015, 132-157.
UN General Assembly, Transforming our world : the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, 21 October 2015, A/RES/70/1, available at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/57b6e3e44.html [accessed 25 April 2021]
World Bank Group. (2017). The growing role of minerals and metals for a low carbon future. World Bank.
Xavier, L. H., Giese, E. C., Ribeiro-Duthie, A. C., & Lins, F. A. F. (2019). Sustainability and the circular economy: A theoretical approach focused on e-waste urban mining. Resources Policy, 101467.
Yang, Y. C., Nie, P. Y., & Huang, J. B. (2020). The optimal strategies for clean technology to advance green transition. Science of the Total Environment, 716, 134439.
The circular economy is about linking, generating, preserving value and answering the need for sustainable growth. Its objective is to change the classical product lifecycle conceived as “production-consumption-disposal”, extending the useful life of goods. Nowadays in Europe, each year, 15 tons of materials per capita is used, while among the 4.5 per capita which is disposed of, half goes into definitive life end. Given the increasing aggregate need for materials, due to the growing population and the subsequent scarcity of resources, the model of the linear economy is not any more sustainable. For that reason, there is the need of recovering from waste inputs of production, turning the current path into a non-ending circle of production, consumption, disposal, collection and recycling, up to re-creation of raw materials (European commission).
Considering the economic perspective, a circular economy is not only a move in favour of environmental sustainability but also an opportunity for economic growth, for both businesses and society. In fact, the European Union forecasts that it could generate employment by creating 580.000 workplaces (which could grow up to 700.000 with the realization of Agenda 2030), up to 72 billion in saving for European enterprises and GDP growth up to 1%. Circular economic advantages could potentially also allow the creation of new partnerships and new, previously unexplored, markets (Battaglia, 2020). These are only a few reasons why the circular economy should be the base of the structural premises of firms nowadays, as part of the corporate social responsibility of businesses. Major climate and biological risks are threatening our planet therefore a long-term, sustainability-oriented optic should be the pillar of the society, as suggested by the European Green Deal proposed in March 2020 (European parliament, 2021).
The circular rethinking of the economy could potentially be applied in every production cycle which ends with the disposal of some left-over materials. Out of its application in products’ life cycles many secondary markets and industries have been created, of which the ‘Economics of plastic’ is probably the most common example.
URBAN MINING: What is it and what are the possible opportunities and limits
A novelty in the circular direction is urban mining, often part of wider projects for ‘sustainable cities’. Urban mining refers to the practice of recovering, out of households and business-owner rubbish and wastes, the e-waste, such as lithium and alkaline batteries, electronic home devices, their spare parts and electrical-based goods and materials in general. The functioning of urban mines follows the so-called rule of the three Rs: reduction, re-usage and recycle. An urban mine is a functional area in which daily rubbish is conveyed in the form of leftover materials such as plastic, paper, glass, aluminium and e-wastes. Urban mining refers to the subsequent research and recovery of rare materials extracted from e-wastes through mechanical and chemical processes. Thanks to those urban mining spaces, some clean materials can be separated right away and sent out to the urban mine for re-commercialization, bringing disposal costs to 0.
Second-life-raw inputs of production are as useful as if they have primarily extracted materials from traditional mining resources, therefore this practice also, indirectly, allows to save natural, exhaustible sources (European parliament, 2014).
Overmore, precious metals and rare lands can also be extracted from urban mines and, since they are secondary sources, manufacturing processes are a source of competitive advantage (Samperi, 2020). Second raw materials can be obtained at the same price as primary sources if not for much less. For instance, a 2018 study by Zeng, Mathews and Li made utilizing real cost data from e-waste processors in China, demonstrated that pure copper and gold could be recovered from e-waste streams at costs that are comparable to those encountered in virgin mining of ores (Zeng, Mathews, Li, 2018). The same researchers also stated that thanks to specialization, waste-mining techniques are becoming cheaper and cheaper every year. Urban mining costs for 1 kg of copper were found to have decreased from US$ 6.697 in 2010 to US$ 1.684 in 2015, and from US$ 8.438 to US$ 1.591 for gold over the same period (Linnenkoper, 2018). This tells us that, thanks to urban mining, all-equal raw materials can be sourced at equal cost (if not much less, with time). With the exceptional benefits of preventing waste of natural and exhaustible resources, as well as recycling, decreased costs of disposal and decreased emissions are achieved.
Anyway, other than metals per se, another major scope for circular economy and e-waste recovery are batteries. Batteries are nowadays used in everything from the car industry to high tech products, and simple home devices. Recycling batteries have historically been a challenge, despite that, valuable attempts have been recently made. Reviewing first-generation metal recovery processes, scholars in China lately emphasized the need for new selective leaching of most of the valuable metals from the spent LIBs (lithium batteries).
Discovered in 2015, one green, chemical process, for the recovery of metals from spent Li-ion batteries makes use of citric acid and aqueous preparations to get cobalt and lithium with excellent recovery yields (98% and 99% respectively) (Figure 1) (Pagliaro and Meneguzzo, 2019). Spent batteries are first discharged and then manually dismantled to recover the foils in metallic form thanks to the leaching process, getting directly recycled after dismantling.
From an economic point of view, seven main components (cobalt, lithium, copper, graphite, nickel, aluminium, and manganese) were reported to comprise more than 90% of the economic value of a spent lithium-ion battery. The demand for batteries that constantly exceeds supply shows precisely why the economic advantages of re-generating these materials are so large and significant (Pagliaro, Meneguzzo, 2020). Also having a look at Europe’s situation of stocked metal trends, it is straightforward to see how wide is the extent to which secondary sources may help (Figure 2) (Statista Research Department, 2020). Recovering up to 99% of materials from waste means recovering costs out of something which was about to be wasted, matching the circular view of the economy, safeguarding the planet and saving on costs.
Urban mining has a major limit though: concerning primary sources, it requires a great commitment by the society as a whole, of both people and institutions. Discards may be collected but not destined for recycling if there are no appropriate processes or infrastructure for handling a particular type of post-consumer scrap (institution, knowledge) or if the processes are in place but the discards end up in the wrong bin (people and information). For this purpose, an instrument was developed (Spinoza, Rostek, Loibl, Stijepic, 2020) to estimate the effectiveness of an Urban mine, the end-of-life collection rate (EoL CR):
EOL collection rate= EOL products collected in the mine for recycling EOL products potentially collectable in the mine for recycling
It measures how well the waste management system is capturing potentially recoverable metals emerging from the urban mine. This rate is most important when assessing the sustainability of cities, their collection infrastructures efficiency and the pertinent national and regional regulations, including efforts to collect particular waste types, such as WEEE (see Astelav case, page 4).
To conclude and summarize what previously debriefed, I would like to report the 7 reasons for Urban mining explained by Recupel, a Belgium company which recycles lightbulbs and e-appliances (Recupel. be), about why it should be preferred to classical mining:
The age of cheap, abundant raw materials is over.
Raw material recuperation from e-waste can be done increasingly cost-efficiently. In cities all over the world, there are still millions of appliances waiting to be recovered.
For some rare metals, urban mining is gradually becoming the only source.
Urban mining avoids a substantial amount of pernicious effects on human beings and the environment.
Classic mining alone cannot meet the rising demand for electrical and electronic appliances.
The business community and investors are jumping on board the urban mining train.
Current attempts and cases
For urban mining to become viable as an effective eco-social solution, quantity, location and availability of materials must be traced. With this purpose, the EU accounts for the data thanks to its Urban Mine Platform. It collects information about markets, waste flows, composition, and available stocks of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE), vehicles and batteries for the 28 EU member states, Norway, Switzerland and limitedly for Iceland (European Urban Mine Platform). Increasing information availability supported by instruments, as this dedicated platform, sustains the functioning of already-present urban mines but could encourage new establishments of mining facilities to foster recycling in urban areas. In this direction, the project for the Urban mine of Amsterdam PUMA developed by the Universiteit Leiden in 2015 forecasted the building of a database to collect publicly available information (AMS Project, Universiteit Leiden).
Currently, industries and businesses, in general, are making attempts to bring their business model to higher compatibility with a circular view of production processes. Numerous manufacturing companies are now more and more relying on recycled raw materials as inputs of production, such as recycled paper and plastic, not only for goods produced but also very frequently for packaging, especially in the food industry.
Following a slower, but still fundamental, path of change, are those companies (producers or merchandisers of electric/electronic goods) who are trying to align with urban mining and the subsequent, metal and mineral-based, secondary source finished goods. An interesting case in that sense, which is often considered as a pioneer of this type of business in the Italian landscape, is Astelav. This company was born in Turin in 1970 as a provider of technical assistance for washing machines, but, nowadays, is a leader in selling re-generated spare parts for electronic home devices thanks to the technological innovation in place. Astelav, at the end of 2016, developed the Ri-generation project, which goes towards the principles of circular economy: “an example of an economy which donates domestic electric devices new life, those that otherwise would be sent to final disposal, creating new work opportunities”. In few words, this company collects the e-waste from urban mining locations, regenerates exhausted disposed of devices or collects useful spare parts to fix other devices in the future and make available on the market cheap and functioning electronics. Within this process, workplaces for people in difficulties are generated and the planet is safeguarded, fighting unconscious waste habits of still-useful resources and consumerism. In 2017, their first “Ri-generation shop” opened in Turin.
Astelav for Urban mining is only an example, but the same path of change is currently being verified for many other industries such as the food industry. More and more firms are nowadays applying to their business plan the purpose to have a production process of -1 impact during the packaging phase. For instance, some companies such as Ferrarelle, are using an amount of plastic or paper for packaging lower than the one obtained from recycling. Plus, as for corporate social responsibility, major companies are investing in primary-school education of children with multiple projects aimed at teaching ecology and recycling or are running massive media campaigns to raise awareness on these hot topics. Those are for sure good signs, small but important steps, which are helping to establish a positive, inspirational trend to follow for the realization of sustainable development goals of Agenda 2030.
van der Voet, E., Huele, R., Koutamanis, A., van Reijn, B., van Bueren, E., Spierings, J., … & Blok, M. (2017). Prospecting the urban mine of Amsterdam.
Possibilities of circular economy in mining waste management
Text by Henrietta Nyström
The production phase in mining offers different possibilities for micro-level circular economy practices. Producing batteries for electric vehicles require the mining of minerals, mainly cobalt, lithium and nickel, the processing of which generates different waste materials. At present, the management of mining waste constitutes a challenge on both local and global levels. How can and could the circular economy principles guide mining waste management?
Mining waste causes issues because of its volume and its possible and even long-term social and environmental impacts. In the European Union, the mining and quarrying sector stands for 28.2% of all waste (Wosniak & Pactwa 2018). Mining generates so-called extractive waste, which includes different types of mineral wastes from the extraction phase, such as excavation wastes (e.g. waste rock), mineral processing and treatment wastes (e.g. tailings and waste sand) and drilling wastes (Blengini et al. 2019: 45). From the circular economy point of view, the most problematic process in mining is the mineral enrichment processes where metals are separated from other uneconomic and non-exploitative materials since the process generates a lot of waste. The remaining by-products typically contain sulfide minerals that comprise different metals such as copper, arsenic and cadmium, which can pose risks to human health and pollute groundwater and soil. Sulfide minerals that come in contact with humidity may also create acid catchment water that poses environmental risks. (Geologian tutkimuskeskus 2020: 25.) Currently, mining by-products are dealt with by landfilling, disposing them underground or by deep tailing disposal where the waste is dumped into the deep parts of the ocean(Florene 2021). In addition to the social and environmental risks mentioned above, the current widely utilized methods of disposal awake economic concerns. Mining wastes may include different amounts and compositions of metals, which lose their value when not exploited (Blengini et al. 2019: 117).
The objective of circular economy practices in mining waste management is to create value to the previously uneconomic waste material while reducing the total amount and impacts of generated waste. Waste recycling reduces the need for primary extraction, provides a way for the metal industry to use lower-cost raw materials and for mining companies to avoid often expensive landfilling costs (Blengini et al. 2019: 73). In addition, the avoidance of landfilling frees land for other types of uses, which may benefit the surrounding community. At present, countries of the European Union are highly dependent on imported raw materials, so the circular economy opens up a possibility for increased self-sufficiency (ibid. 73).
Reuse of mining waste has not yet become widely implemented among corporations, but some introduced practices show the potential of a circular economy in mining waste management. For example, mining waste can be used by the construction industry in building roads and dams or as soil additives. The mining industry can also benefit from using waste material in on-site construction. However, to preserve the value of metals in the waste material, different metal recovery methods have been developed, such as bioleaching, a technology that recovers critical metals from primary ores or concentrates with the help of microorganisms (ibid. 79). As part of the EU-funded project, NEMO, which aims to assess the potential of near zero-waste recycling of sulphidic mining waste in a circular economy, there have been bioleaching pilot projects in many regions, such as Sotkamo in Finland, Exeter in the United Kingdom, Leuven in Belgium, Romania and Sweden (Nemo project s.a.). These projects aim to develop the possibilities of reusing mining waste from for example copper and nickel extraction; two important minerals for battery production. Not only does bioleaching enable the reuse of battery mineral production waste, but battery minerals can also be detached from waste, like in the Kasese Cobalt Company site in Uganda, where cobalt is separated from copper waste tailings (Blengini et al. 2019: 79-82.).
A recent study conducted in Gordo, Italy, manifests the potential of other extractive waste reuse methods. The research tested the metal recovery from mining waste rock and tailings with methods called wet shaking table and froth flotation (Mehta et al 2020). The tests conveyed that recovery percentages vary between different methods and different waste materials, which confirms the need for more research on metal separation technologies.
If the circular economy practices in mining waste management will reach a larger scope, it’s important to take a look at the constraints and drawbacks. Firstly, waste reduction measures are considered large investments and expenses by companies that might delay or even hinder them from being taken into use as part of the productionimprovedAlthough recycled raw materials contain the benefit of lower price levels, the secondary raw material’s value drops in comparison to the primary product’s value (Blengini et al. 2019: 75), which might affect companies’ willingness to invest in waste management improval. The composition of the extractive waste (for example size and pH-value) and the amount of critical raw materials in it affect the simplicity and profitability of its recycling. (Ibid. 45; Mehta et al. 2020: 16). Another issue is the lack of sufficient waste management policies, lack of knowledge of best circular economy practices and their environmental effects even on the EU level (Ibid.), meaning more research and hazard assessment on the qualities of waste and new technological solutions will be needed in the future to develop more sustainable practices.
On a global scale, the possibilities for companies to implement waste management practices are unequally distributed. Wealthier nations typically obtain better prerequisites to develop their waste management systems in terms of both financial and technological resources and know-how, while the need for improved waste management seems greater in developing countries, where most of the earth’s mineral resources are located and which are facing the most severe impacts of climate change. The unequal geographical division of solution capacity may also translate into an unequal division of the environmental, social and economic impacts of mining waste. On the other hand, global interlinkages in the mining industry may facilitate waste management investments in the global South as well. Another question is what consequences increased self-sufficiency of raw materials in developed nations resulting from recycling will have on developing nations? In some countries, for example in Indonesiawhere mining revenues constitute 24% of all exports (Statista Research Department 2021), there is a high dependency on exporting mining products, which might become a disadvantage in case of reduced imports from developed countries.
In conclusion, we can say that considering a projected increase in the mining of minerals such as lithium, nickel and cobalt and the problems with extractive waste, mining waste management constitutes a key issue globally. Different methods such as bioleaching, wet shaking table and flotation, could provide economical and more sustainable alternatives for existing waste management practices and enhance a circular economy in mining. Despite the several benefits of a circular economy, we should also acknowledge the possible local and global spillover effects. Future solutions will depend not only on the willingness and resources of mining companies and on market demand but also on waste management policies and their monitoring.
Justyna Wozniak * and Katarzyna Pactwa 2018. Overview of Polish Mining Wastes with Circular Economy Model and Its Comparison with Other Wastes. Sustainability 10, 3994; doi:10.3390/su10113994. Read: 16.4.2021.
Mehta, Neha, Antonella Dino, Giovanna, Passarella, Irede, Ajmone-Marsan, Franco, Rossetti, Piergiorgio, Antonio De Luca, Domenico 2020. Assessment of the Possible Reuse of Extractive Waste Coming from Abandoned Mine Sites: Case Study in Gorno, Italy. Sustainability 12, 2471, doi:10.3390/su12062471. Read: 22.4.2021.
Battery reusing and recycling + alternatives to batteries
Text by Jeanne Leroux
The growing use of batteries has a serious impact on the environment nowadays. Indeed, there are more than two million metric tonnes of batteries (Ambrose, 2020b) that are retired or used per year. We use them in different electronic devices, especially smartphones, tablets, computers and electric cars.
This is why it has been really important to find a way to reduce waste, first of all, to avoid environmental damages, but it is also interesting to create benefits out of them and create a circular economy around them. Following the waste hierarchy and the 3R strategy, many scientists have researched ways to recover, redesign, reuse and recycle batteries. All the processes around reusing and recycling used lithium batteries create a trillion-dollar market (Ambrose, 2020a), while there are also other types of rechargeable batteries, such as lead-acid, nickel-metal hydride, nickel-cadmium batteries. But in most of the research, the focus is on lithium-ion batteries, because it is the material in which we found the most solutions of reusing.
Firstly, reusing is giving a second life to batteries. In the case of vehicles batteries, after their first use, it is sometimes possible to use the same battery in another device. But most of the time, batteries are collected with the aim to stock energy (Melin, 2019). Indeed, after the first use, batteries are not efficient enough to both stock and liberate the energy anymore. Despite this, they can still be useful to stock electricity, for example in solar panels or wind turbines, in which battery modules are put together to create bigger storage. Indeed, even after 10 years of use in vehicles, they still retain more than two-thirds of their usable energy storage and combined, batteries can form important storage.
Reusing is a good way to close the loop of batteries’ uses (Pagliaro & Meneguzzo, 2019). Indeed, it reduces waste and also saves money. This is why it is interesting to implement it not just for companies but also for governments and environmental organizations. Companies have a real interest in managing used batteries. Indeed, for them, it is a real way to benefit as much as they can from the products, they create a second revenue of batteries, even if they have to invest in the reconditioning, they can still benefit from the final product value.
On the political scale, many improvements have been done. For example, the European Commission signed the Innovation Deal framework in 2018, to control how e-vehicle batteries are reused and recycled after their first use. Policies have an important role to assure more responsible and sustainable practices concerning batteries and mining in general. It takes care of the producer responsibility but also provides recommendations at different scales in the European Union to improve our uses and make greener growth possible. As well as the European Commission, the Lithium-ion Car Battery Recycling Advisory Group was created in California to advise the Legislature on policies about vehicles batteries, in response to Assembly Bill No. 2832. This group is meeting several times a year with scientists from different fields to manage battery waste, which is very important in California, and to ensure that 100% of electric vehicle batteries sold in the state are either reused or recycled at the end of their life cycle. All these policies are very important because they reduce battery waste, support green growth and help companies to find solutions to manage used batteries. They even sometimes work in cooperation with companies that are innovating in the field of managing used batteries. All together work on sustainable development by taking care of the different pillars that are environment, economy and social justice.
After the reusing process, batteries can be recycled. This process is harder than the first one because there can be technical, economic or logistical barriers. Recycling methods depend on the type of batteries, and the methods can vary from one material to another (Zhou et al., 2020). The aim is to collect the materials and recover them, to possibly use them afterwards. It reduces the need for new raw materials and the impact of the mining industry on earth in general. Plus, it generates a new sustainable value chain for certain materials which can be reused. Recycling is then the last step to close the loop of the battery life cycle.
The process of recycling is composed of the pretreatment, which consists of sorting out the different materials of batteries, then the secondary treatment is about using a chemical solvent to separate the cathode from the aluminium collector foil, and finally, the last step is to dissolve the cathode materials, either by hydro-metallurgy or pyrometallurgy. Nowadays, pyrometallurgy is widely used because of its simplicity and the possibility to recover cobalt, nickel and copper present in batteries, but it is also contested because lithium and aluminium are often lost in the process. However, today, batteries are less and less composed of cobalt (Pagliaro & Meneguzzo, 2019), this is why technologies of battery recycling are developing the process to find a way to reduce lithium waste instead of cobalt. Future systems could reduce new wastes, especially lithium, and reduce pollution as well as environmental risks caused by other materials such as electrolytes.
Finally, some new alternatives to lithium-ion batteries are being thought of (Petrovan, 2021). This would be a good way to limit mining activities and have fewer impacts on the ecosystems and limit all the negative spillover effects. These alternatives are mainly in the research stage because scientists have not yet found how to do that and achieve the same level of performance as lithium-ion batteries. These new alternatives would be very interesting because they could last forever, avoid the stage of reusing and recycling, and save money in investments and processes.
The hydrogen fuel cells are one of the few examples that could be useful. Made with an electrochemical cell, it converts the chemical energy of a fuel and an oxidizing agent into electricity. Some companies like Toyota are working on this project but there is still the problem of manufacturing hydrogen except with water but this process isn’t clean and profitable to produce at the moment.
The second solution considered is bioelectrochemical batteries. It uses “anaerobic bacteria to process acetate with a reduction/oxidation method that releases electrons”. In that case, the process between storing and releasing energy could be endless, because the bacteria could reproduce energy endlessly. But for now, there is just one prototype that is far from the expected performance of a battery.
Finally, solid-state batteries are a technology which uses solid electrodes and solid electrolyte, instead of the liquid found in lithium-ion batteries. They are already used in certain laptops, and pacemakers, because they are safer than other batteries with liquid electrolyte, especially concerning fire risk. Moreover, they can stock higher energy densities compared to other batteries and could last a lifetime. But for now, they are not viable because of the cost of production.
All these ideas could be the solutions of tomorrow, and there are more alternatives considered and researched to avoid the use of lithium and other raw materials, which are mainly the source of many spillover effects.
Ambrose, H. (2020). A Quick Guide to Battery Reuse and Recycling
Ambrose, H. (2020) The Second-Life of Used EV Batteries
European Commission. (2018) The Joint Declaration of Intent for the INNOVATION DEAL on ”From E-Mobility to recycling: the virtuous loop of the electric Vehicle”
Melin, H.E. (2019) State-of-the-art in reuse and recycling of lithium-ion batteries –A research review
Pagliaro, M., Meneguzzo, F. (2019) Lithium battery reusing and recycling: A circular economy insight
Petrovan B. (2021) 10 alternatives to lithium-ion batteries
Richa, K., W. Babbitt, C., Gaustad, G. (2017) Eco‐Efficiency Analysis of a Lithium‐Ion Battery Waste Hierarchy Inspired by Circular Economy
Zhou, L.F., Yang, D., Du, T., Gong, H., and Luo, W.B. (2020) The Current Process for the Recycling of Spent Lithium-Ion Batteries
Are electric vehicles truthfully environmentally friendly? – A review of life cycle emissions
Text by Aamu Kurjenpuu
Battery technology is included under the category of green technology. A solar panel, electric car or other types of electric vehicle buyer might think their purchase has a positive impact on the environment. Consumers buy the product so that they would consume fewer natural resources but at the same time obtain the same quality and quantity of life. But in reality, does the image created by marketers about the environmental friendliness of a product reflect the real carbon footprint?
The popularity of Electric vehicles (EVs) has grown tremendously in recent years. According to the IPCC (2018) report, fossil fuel-related CO2 emissions for energy purposes caused 69% of global GHG emissions in 2010 and they have grown by several per cent each year (chapter, 5). Due to the increasing problem of air pollution caused by fuel gas usage, the need for clean energy has become evident. In addition, the ease of use, trendiness and attractive designs of the devices have exploded the popularity of EVs. Despite the current COVID- 19 pandemic last year unit sales globally were 3,24 million which is a 143,36 % growth compared to 2,26 million sales the previous year (The electric vehicle world sales database, 2021). Compared globally, V sales growth has been the strongest in Europe. European countries such as Germany have invested in EVs, for climate policy reasons, this has led to 240% growth in sales. It is expected that EV sales worldwide will exceed 5 million sales in 2021, this would be a 55% increase from last year (The electric vehicle world sales database, 2021).
Due to the high demand for energy storage systems lithium, cobalt, nickel and other metals are extracted to an increasing extent (Gil-Alana and Monge, 2019) (see Blog post Mining industry). Batteries consume 65% of the lithium sold in the global end-use markets. Global consumption of lithium in 2019 increased by 18% from the previous year (Jaskula, 2020). Extraction of these battery materials has significant adverse environmental effects (see Blog post Mining industry). In the next section, we will address the sustainability of this future transportation. When it comes to climate change, it’s important to know if electric cars emit less carbon and by how much.
Life cycle analysis of an electric vehicle
Electric vehicle emissions are based on a life cycle analysis which consists of three different phases: the manufacturing, the use phase, and the recycling phase. This three-part analysis seeks to take into account all emissions related to EV production.
The key processes in this phase are mining, material transformation, vehicle part manufacturing, and vehicle assembly. Studies have shown (Ambrose & Kendall, 2016, Ellingsen, Hung & Strømman, 2017, Raugei & Winfield, 2018, Wang et al. 2013, Hao et al. 2017, Qiao et al. 2019) evidently that internal combustion engines vehicles (ICEV) emit less carbon dioxide per car in the production phase than EVs. It is estimated that compared to traditional vehicles, electric car manufacturing produces 30 per cent more GHG emissions (Hao et al. 2017). The difference in emissions is due to the high energy demand of battery manufacturing (Ambrose & Kendall, 2016)According to Wang et al. (2017) the production accounts for nearly 70 per cent of EVs carbon emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions from material manufacturing accounted for 20% of overall battery production emissions on average and aluminium production was responsible for 40 % of these emissions (Ambrose & Kendall, 2016). The most energy-consuming process is the battery cell assembly and pacing(Ambrose & Kendall, 2016). A comprehensive Chinese study by Qiao et al, 2019 estimated that 1,300 kg EV, which battery weighs 188.7 kg emits 3.2 tons of CO2. The EV manufacturing phase CO2 emissions are dependent on the type of energy used in the process. The higher the ratio of fossil fuel used in manufacturing, the higher the GHG emissions. Emissions from batteries produced in China are particularly high as their electricity mix is mostly generated from coal power. This is particularly worrisome as China is the largest producer of EV batteries and is seeking to strengthen its position as a manufacturer in the future.
The estimate of manufacturing phase emissions cannot be accuratelygeneralized, as the production of different types of batteries produces different amounts of emissions and the type of electricity generation mix results in different amounts of GHGs. In addition, the battery life span strongly affects the significance of emissions from battery production. This is not well estimated due to large uncertainties in the current performance of lithium batteries as well as large variations in the life cycle of chemicals (Ambrose & Kendall, 2016).
The subject has been studied a lot however, research data on the subject varies widely due to variation on bill-of-materials, supply chain, different production processes, and the technologies, the size of the battery and the geographical location where it is produced. In addition, the battery life cycle analysis is extremely difficult to assess due to the large gaps in the data (Qiang et al. 2019).
It is to be noted that, the emissions from the manufacturing process of an electric car are higher than those from fossil-fuelled vehicles if the vehicle life is assumed to be 150,000 kilometres (Hasan et al. 2021). This is equivalent to two years of car use.
Emissions of an EV manufactured in China (Qiao et al, 2019)
The entire life cycle GHG emissions of an EV are about 41.0 t CO2eq
Emissions from electric car production are 13 (tCO₂)
Internal combustion engine vehicle life cycle GHG emissions are 50.0 t CO2eq
ICEVs in the manufacturing phase emit about 10.5 (tCO₂)
The use phase
Use phase emissions are exclusively dependent on the way the electricity is generated; is it from renewable or fossil sources. In comparison to internal combustion engine cars, EVs have lower emission during the use phase, if the electricity is generated by low-carbon sources.
According to Hall and Lutsey (2018), an electric car’s manufacturing-phase emissions would be paid back in 2 years of driving with European average grid electricity compared to a typical vehicle. It must be noted that the use phase emissions are directly dependent on the type of power that is distributed to a local power grid (fossil fuels vs. renewables). This is evident by Qaio et al. (2019) study which found out that in China 59- 62% of the life cycle GHG emission comes in the use phase because most of the electricity in the grid is produced by coal. Wang (2013) study suggested that over 90% of China’s electricity mix should be from nuclear power to undercut combustion engine vehicle emissions.
In the use phase, if production and recycling phases are not included, EVs could reduce emissions between 87% and 90%, compared to the ICV use phase, if using clean energy sources (Hasan et al, 2020). According to many studies, there are no significant emission reduction effects if the vehicles are charged mostly on fossil fuel energy. Athanasopoulou, Bikas, & Stavropoulos (2018) study about EV emissions in Europe found out that:
Albania produces 100% of its energy by hydropower. As a result of which the EV use phase emissions were only 0.8-1.6 gCO2/km according to the in-use values.
Estonia’s electric grid is powered 88% by fossil fuels this resulted in 120-226 g gCO2/km based on the in-use values
ICEV produces on average 122.1 gCO2/km
In other words, in Estonia, the use of EV cars produces more than 140-150 times more grams of CO2 emissions per km than in Albania.
The emission difference between EV and ICEV used in Estonia is only about 1%
It must be taken into consideration, if EV models become larger, heavier and have larger batteries Phase 1 and Phase 2 will pollute more in terms of GHG emissions (Qaio, et al. 2019). Lastly, climate and weather also have an impact on pollution emitted during the usage phase, as it affects battery life and charging efficiency (Ambrose & Kendall, 2016). Due to a large number of variables, we can state that it is difficult to define the precise GHG emission from the use phase.
The recycling phase
The following are the most important processes in the recycling phase: vehicle dismantling, vehicle recycling, battery recycling and material recovery.
The rate of battery recycling has been extremely poor. Up till 2011, only 5% of lithium batteries were recycled in Europe (Binnemans et al. 2013). As EVs have only gained popularity in the past six years, most car batteries have not yet gone obsolete, but it is becoming a cumulative problem in the years to come (see Blogpost Corporate Social Responsibility on battery recycling). Differences in battery manufacturing, chemistry and differing recycling methods have led to the low recycling rate (Huang et al. 2018). For recycling to become the standard, corrective steps must be enforced.
It must be noted that the battery chemistry affects recycling; this is why there is some uncertainty about how recycled materials could affect carbon footprints (Hall & Lutsey, 2018). Also, the recycling techniques, assessments and calculation methods differ widely, which makes it difficult to perform literature-based analysis of the actual emissions and emission reductions from recycling.
The following estimates describe EVs produced and recycled in China because it is where the most EVs are produced and used in terms of quantity (Statista, 2021).
Multiple studies have shown it is possible to reduce the life cycle GHG emissions of electric cars with qualified recycling measures (Yang, 2020, Dunn et al, 2015). That said, EV recycling produces more emissions than ICEV recycling (Wang et al. 2013). It has been projected that recycling produces about 1.8 tonnes of emissions for a fossil-fuelled car and 2.4 tonnes for an electric car (Qiao et al. 2019). According to Hao et al. (2017) in China in 2025 with improved recycling methods, EV made from fully recycled products would produce only 9.8 t. of carbon. Thus, lowering the total GHG emissions by 34% (GHG emissions from the production of an EV with primary sourced materials and a lithium battery are about 14.9 t CO2eq).
The contributing factors of this GHG reduction are steel, aluminium and battery cathode recycling, but the most notable emission reduction is achieved by recycling batteries, which is up to 48% lower compared to a battery made of virgin materials (Hao et al. 2017). This emission reduction of life cycle GHG emissions, by recycling, are based on an optimized hydrometallurgical process adaptation. It is worth noting that, it is debated that EVs that are recycled in China do not achieve these goals at the moment, because the recycling process is highly energy consuming and China’s electricity mix is heavily coal-based.
As stated before, aluminium is one of the most polluting substances in the car manufacturing phase, due to aluminium cathode materials high energy intensity in the battery assembly. For this reason, aluminium recycling is also one of the most GHG emitting steps of the recycling phase. As a result, the use of aluminium is still debatable (Wang et al, 2013).
Recycling lithium batteries is the most energy-consuming and GHG emitting process of this phase and is responsible for 0.7 tonnes of emissions. It is important to develop efficient and effective recycling methods as the batteries contain large amounts of metals and toxic electrolytes (Ordoñez et al. 2016). There are multiple methods for recovering noble metals from electrochemical devices. However, none of them is well established in the industry and there is no standardised method of recycling. Moreover, the continuously evolving lithium battery technologies make the recycling methods quickly outdated (Ordoñez et al. 2016, Gaines 2018). In addition, the process produces environmentally hazardous by-products, which is difficult to handle, neutralize and recycle (Huang et al. 2018). Environmental burden depends on the recycling approaches, which is why it would be important to standardize the recycling method.
Better policies regarding standardization of materials, and better designs aiming toward easy disassembly and separation is necessary for the efficiency of reuse processing and reduction of emissions. New practices should promote easy material and component recovery, with low energy consumption and minimal environmental impact (Huang et al. 2018). This is especially important as EVs will become more common in the future. To make sure that the environmental benefits of EVs can be fully taken into account, we need more regulations requiring automakers to use more recycled materials in EVs, particularly steel, aluminium and cathode materials.
Conclusions – Are EVs better for the environment?
The fact is that EVs have immense environmental impacts such as GHG emissions, landscape destruction, and impacts on local ecosystems and water resources. Regardless of this EVs on average produce 18 % less GHG emissions in a lifetime, than an ICEV (Qiao et al. 2019). By developing an electricity mix towards cleaner energy production, the GHG reduction can be more remarkable in all of the phases. This would be especially important in China as it is the largest vehicle manufacturer and has the largest vehicle market. To develop the sustainability of electric vehicles, the industry needs standardised end-of-life regulations for auto batteries- and other materials. More standardized battery design and manufacturing, as well as recycling methods, will improve material recovery and reduce recycling emissions (Huang et. al. 2018). Also regulation on how many recycled parts companies should use to assemble an EV would be an important step to ensure emission reductions. Setting recycling standards is critically important to offset the high GHG emissions produced in the manufacturing phase.
Ambrose, H., & Kendall, A. (2016). Effects of battery chemistry and performance on the life cycle greenhouse gas intensity of electric mobility. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, 47, 182-194.
Athanasopoulou, L., Bikas, H., & Stavropoulos, P. (2018). Comparative Well-to-Wheel emissions assessment of internal combustion engine and battery electric vehicles. Procedia CIRP, 78, 25-30.
Binnemanns, K., Jones, P. T., Blanpain, B., Van Gerven, T., & Yang, Y. (2013). A. Walton und M. Buchert. J. Cleaner Prod, 51, 1-22.
Dai, Q., Kelly, J. C., Gaines, L., & Wang, M. (2019). Life cycle analysis of lithium-ion batteries for automotive applications. Batteries, 5(2), 48.
Du, J. D., Han, W. J., Peng, Y. H., & Gu, C. C. (2010). Potential for reducing GHG emissions and energy consumption from implementing the aluminium-intensiveChinaforthe e fleet in China. Energy, 35(12), 4671-4678.
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.
Ellingsen, L. A., Hung, C. R., & Strømman, A. H. (2017). Identifying key assumptions and differences in life cycle assessment studies of lithium-ion traction batteries with a focus on greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, 55, 82-90
Gaines, L. (2018). Lithium-ion battery recycling processes: Research towards a sustainable course. Sustainable materials and technologies, 17, e00068.
Gil-Alana, L. A., & Monge, M. (2019). Lithium: Production and estimated consumption. evidence of persistence. Resources Policy, 60, 198-202
Hall, D., & Lutsey, N. (2018). Effects of battery manufacturing on electric vehicle life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions, International Council on Clean Transportation
Hao, H., Mu, Z., Jiang, S., Liu, Z., & Zhao, F. (2017). GHG Emissions from the Production of Lithium-Ion Batteries for Electric Vehicles in China. Sustainability, 9(4), 504. MDPI AG.
Hasan, M. & Frame, D. & Chapman, R. & Archie, K.. (2020). Costs and emissions: Comparing electric and petrol-powered cars in New Zealand. Transportation Research Part D Transport and Environment. 90. 102671. 10.1016/j.trd.2020.102671.
Hollingsworth, J., Copeland, B., & Johnson, J. X. (2019). Are e-scooters polluters? The environmental impacts of shared dockless electric scooters. Environmental Research Letters, 14(8), 084031.
Huang, B., Pan, Z., Su, X., & An, L. (2018). Recycling of lithium-ion batteries: Recent advances and perspectives. Journal of Power Sources, 399, 274-286.
IPCC (2018). Summary for Policymakers. In IPCC, M. Allen, M. Babiker, Y. Chen, H. de Coninck, S. Connors, et al. (Eds.), Global Warming of 1.5C: An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty (pp. 1–32). Geneva: World Meteorological Organization
Jaskula B. Mineral Commodity Summaries – Lithium 2020 U.S. Geological Survey (2020)
Ordoñez, J., Gago, E. J., & Girard, A. (2016). Processes and technologies for the recycling and recovery of spent lithium-ion batteries. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 60, 195-205.
Qiao, Q., Zhao, F., Liu, Z., He, X., & Hao, H. (2019). Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of electric vehicles in china: Combining the vehicle cycle and fuel cycle. Energy,
Raugei, M., & Winfield, P. (2019). Prospective LCA of the production and EoL recycling of a novel type of Li-ion battery for electric vehicles. Journal of Cleaner Production, 213, 926-932.
Wang, D., Zamel, N., Jiao, K., Zhou, Y., Yu, S., Du, Q., & Yin, Y. (2013). Life cycle analysis of internal combustion engine, electric and fuel cell vehicles for China. Energy, 59, 402-412.
Wolfram, P., & Wiedmann, T. (2017). Electrifying Australian transport: Hybrid life cycle analysis of a transition to electric light-duty vehicles and renewable electricity. Applied Energy, 206, 531-540.
Yang, Z., Wang, B., & Jiao, K. (2020). Life cycle assessment of fuel cell, electric and internal combustion engine vehicles under different fuel scenarios and driving mileages in China. Energy, 198, 117365.
Corporate Social Responsibility on battery recycling
Text by Tina Krause
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has become a fundamental part of the major companies around the world (Antweiler, 2014). Today, CSR and sustainability efforts aren’t just about what happens within a company and its stakeholders, but it concerns the whole supply chain, from suppliers of raw material to recycling (Dai et al., 2020).
Nowadays, almost all companies have a CSR policy to show what kind of practices are followed to ensure a sustainable and ethical operation. Recycling is thus an important component in a company’s CSR strategy as it helps to improve the environmental efforts and replaces the need of extracting raw material (Dai et al., 2020; Panda et al., 2017). Expanding the responsibility to recycling and reusing, for example when it comes to critical minerals, can hence increase the sustainability of a company.
Recycling batteries is expensive, perhaps not something that producers want to take on, so why should a producer bother recycling? Today CSR and sustainability can be a huge part of the marketing of a company, and if the CSR contribution to the brand’s reputation and attraction of new loyal customers is not enough, perhaps the savings from the costs that usually come with extracting raw materials can be a motivator (Antweiler, 2014; Nordelöf et al., 2014; Panda et al., 2017).
Overall, when it comes to batteries used in electric vehicles, components usually last longer than in other cars, meaning that the impact of material sourcing is smaller, hence producing less waste (Dawn, 2021). However, we are soon facing the first production wave of batteries that are reaching the end of their life cycle. So, the question is if and how, big companies like Tesla, are taking on the responsibility of the huge amount of waste that they are producing?
Policies to support recycling
One way to encourage recycling programs is to shift responsibility from waste managers to producers. Shifting the responsibility over to the producers of the batteries might make the companies more interested and willing to design their products in a way that makes it easier for them to recycle and reuse, hence not only focusing on the performance. Also, implementing policies that engage the customer in the business, in this case through the recycling process, will only make the customers more loyal and connected to the company (Antweiler, 2014). As the image of a company, today is one of the most crucial elements in a successful business it is important to include the customers as much as possible.
Furthermore, recycling needs to be integrated into the supply chain, and as a consequence of CSR development, many companies are using reverse supply chain, the collection of used products for recycling (Panda et al., 2017). However, it would not just be about a company’s reverse supply chain but a complete circular or closed-loop supply chain, relating to CSR remanufacturing which not only relieves resource shortages but also mitigates environmental pollution (Dai et al., 2020; Panda et al., 2017). Collecting the used batteries, referring to companies selling electric vehicles, shouldn’t be too difficult since there is most often a register on who owns the cars and where in the world they are located. The problem would rather lay on the logistics of the collection, which companies should put more focus on. For example, who would take care of the collection, and at the same time, address questions on how to avoid unnecessary transportation of the material across the globe, to mitigate the environmental effects. A remanufacturing supply chain where the manufacturers bear the recycling responsibility would hence also mean an extension of the supply chain, which always brings more complexity and challenges to the company, but on the other hand, is an easy win on the road to more responsible business management (Dai et al., 2020).
Tesla is an American electric vehicle manufacturer that has also branched out into solar energy products (Tesla, 2021). The company is the most advanced in its field, wanting to accelerate clean transport and clean energy production, while at the same time also contributing to the accelerating amount of battery waste. The consumption of metals and minerals makes the company a contributor to the negative effects of mining, hence, the aspect of recycling and reusing should be important for the company, not only to mitigate the negative effect but also to promote the circular economy and end our dependency on non-renewable resources. So, what is Tesla doing in terms of battery recycling?
Tesla has made it clear that they want to aim towards a closed-loop recycling system where lithium, cobalt, aluminium, copper, and steel will all be recovered from retired batteries (Forfar, 2018). According to the company’s impact report, they recycle all of their used cells, modules and battery packs, recycling 100% of the lithium-ion batteries (Tesla, 2019). The newest generation of batteries, aimed at eliminating cobalt, is highly recyclable. About 90% of the battery can be recycled, but even after its life in the vehicle, the battery can be used for other purposes like energy storage (Dawn, 2021). However, Tesla also states in the report that only high-value elements that are recycled are re-introduced into their supply chain (Tesla, 2019). Meaning that the metals and minerals are being reused but materials like plastics, and other materials that are difficult to recycle, will only be reused in Tesla’s supply chain when technology improves.
Tesla has partnered up with third-party recyclers to recover the valuable metals, to recycle the products back to the original raw materials, flowing in a circular loop (Tesla, 2019). For example, European Tesla locations partner with a mining company called Umicore which uses a closed-loop recycling strategy, meaning that the recycled products usually can be used for their original purpose. Tesla is also developing a unique battery recycling system at Gigafactory Nevada that will process both battery manufacturing scrap and end-of-life batteries (Tesla, 2019).
So far, Tesla has only received a limited number of batteries back from the field. Most batteries that Tesla recycles today are coming from different phases of the production process, such as quality control, and it will take some time before the company starts getting vehicle batteries in larger volumes (Tesla, 2019). Therefore, it is still too early to tell if Tesla actually will be able to ensure that the recycling responsibility will be met. For this to happen Tesla also wants, and needs, to set up an incentive program for customers who return their old battery modules. As an example, Tesla has stated that customers do not pay extra for recycling the battery pack (White, 2020).
Lastly, we need to be critical of these numbers and statements on who is recycling what and how much. The fact is that the market for electric vehicles is a very new one, and hence, recycling so far hasn’t been that demanding. Recycling 100 % might not mean much if we are only talking about the small percentage of cars or batteries that have reached the end of their life cycle. A battery in a car will usually stay in the car for the life cycle of the vehicle, which may be up to 15 to 20 years, and as the Tesla production took off in 2008, these vehicles are not due to reach the end of life until 2023–2028 (Forfar, 2018). Additionally, today greenwashing is something that occurs more often than we might think (Antweiler, 2014). Hence, we need to be critical towards companies marketing through sustainability, as these can easily provide misleading, or twist information for the benefit of the company.
Tesla is a good example of a company that is trying to solve future challenges, but at the same time, creating new ones. It is interesting to see how companies like Tesla, which are marketing themselves with sustainability at the core of their operation, are going to tackle these problems that haven’t even emerged yet. Also, questions like; at what point is working for a more sustainable future not sustainable anymore and, when does profit become more important than sustainability, are some that many companies today should answer and consider in their CSR policies.
Antweiler, W. (2014). Elements of environmental management. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Dai, L., Shu, T., Chen, S., Wang, S., & Lai, K. K. (2020). CSR remanufacturing supply chains under WTP differentiation. Sustainability (Basel, Switzerland), 12(6), 2197. doi:10.3390/su12062197
Nordelöf, A., Messagie, M., Tillman, A., Ljunggren Söderman, M., & Van Mierlo, J. (2014). Environmental impacts of hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and battery electric vehicles—what can we learn from life cycle assessment? The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 19(11), 1866-1890. doi:10.1007/s11367-014-0788-0
Panda, S., Modak, N. M., & Cárdenas-Barrón, L. E. (2017). Coordinating a socially responsible closed-loop supply chain with product recycling. International Journal of Production Economics, 188, 11-21. doi:10.1016/j.ijpe.2017.03.010
According to Dorninger et al. (2021) the world’s overall resource flows are more and more directed to the world’s so-called “core areas” meaning rich countries and cities in them. When we, as a group, think of the lifestyle these rich i.e. Western cities currently represent, words such as consumption, materialism and technology come to our minds. When examining strategies of cities in Finland (map below) it seems clear that almost without an exception cities pursue carbon neutrality by trusting smart solutions – innovations and practices that run on new technologies. So-called Smart Cities, where technological solutions are harnessed to produce efficiency and improve the quality of life of their citizens (Bibri & Krogstie 2017), seem to be seen as one of the main solutions for Western urban areas to fight against climate change. What the strategies do not seem to take into consideration, is the consequences of their systematic digitalization targets in the peripheral regions of the world that provide the materials for the smart solutions.
The level 3 cities on the above map, Helsinki, Turku and Tampere, seem to hold digitalization as an intrinsic value (Helsingin kaupunki, 2021; www.smarttampere.fi; www.turku.fi/projekti/smart-and-wise-turku). Based on our interpretation of the strategies, pioneering in the use of digitalization will supposedly increase international attractivity and provide a simple solution to aim for carbon neutrality. What often seems to be forgotten is the emissions that digitalization causes: the use of batteries, transportation, production and mining of the minerals all demand energy. When calculating the carbon footprint of an actor e.g. city, are all of these steps taken into consideration? We have our doubts on whether the cities are even able to cover each detail in the complex web of actions and functions that they consist of when making the calculations. The root causes of smart city initiatives and strategies seem to have strong linkages to the UNSDGs 11 (sustainable cities and communities) and 13 (climate actions), but we want to raise a question on whether the pressing urge to adopt the newest technologies is really the most sustainable way. Smart and sustainable have become a word pair that seem to intertwine without question, but as can be understood from the research done for this blog (e.g. the publications by Niina Asikanius and Eemi Saarinen) and on the literature review made by Bibri and Krogstie (2017) the relationship of smart and sustainable is not self-evident.
The UN report (2015a) says that 66% of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050. Therefore, the overall influence and environmental impacts of cities will grow and become more central when discussing the world’s resource carrying capacity and climate actions. We believe that it is logical and justified to identify the impacts of cities in the debate of climate change and adequacy of natural resources. Especially when looking at the use of minerals, people in Western cities seem to be the winners, who enjoy the commodities, such as technology, made possible by natural resources from rural mines, but who do not themselves have to face the negative effects of mining activities for the environment and local communities, and who also rather would shift the responsibility to others for example via offset projects.
World history shows that achieving large-scale prosperity has without an exception happened at someone else’s expense. Over and over again nations and groups of people have been oppressed into slavery to produce goods and prosperity for others. Unfortunately the unequal set of our world system has not yet reached its end, but rather the forms of exploitation only have changed. From a geographical point of view there is a hierarchical system in the world in which some places and economies are more important to the world system than the others. This so-called center-periphery structure means that some core areas and key players in the world own relative power over others. (Frank & Gills, 2000). This structure is very well seen in the production and use of minerals. According to Dorninger et al. (2021; Jorgenson and Kick, 2003; Wallerstein, 1974) “economic growth and technological progress in core areas of the world system occurs at the expense of the peripheries”. Mining activities are often geographically located in rural areas, where poverty and widespread problems are already abundant, when the true beneficiaries are living somewhere else.
In order to achieve European Union’s climate neutrality by 2050 goal, we desperately need a transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy (Green deal, 2020). The transition, however, involves high risks of increasing social inequality and environmental crisis since most of the key materials for green technology transition are located in the Global South. Therefore, many of the world’s weakest societies are targets of a new scramble for resources, and may become victims of new forms of colonisation. (Tillerson, 2020).
The world economic structure is based on growth and therefore demand for energy will rapidly grow in the near future. Like Kurjenpuu very well opens, in order to prevent climate change we must pursue a fast transition to renewable energy. Tillerson, however, (2020) very strongly argues that if we want the energy transition to be ecologically sustainable, socially just and technologically realizable, we cannot keep on growing our energy demand at existing rates. “Even after achieving a full energy transition, to keep the global economy growing at projected rates would mean doubling the total global stock of solar panels, wind turbines and batteries every thirty or forty years, for ever”. While implementing the well needed green energy transition, we must actively pursue ways of cutting down the overall need for natural resources. This, according to Hickel, needs the reorganization of capitalist market economy models and questioning our own consuming habits. Like Greta Thunberg (2020) says: “we cannot save the world by playing by the rules. Because the rules have to be changed.” Are we ready to cut down our need for material and lower our overall living standards?
Fighting against the effects of climate change within the mining industry
Text by Kiia Eerikäinen
Inspecting climate change through the lens of mining companies, possible positive linkages are not the first to come to our mind. Increasing pressure on climate-wise technologies would result in a boom of mineral demand, up to 10 fold by 2050 according to Hodgkings & Smith (2018). It however does not erase the fact that the industry has much room for climate-wise options and possibility to influence changes, which is a topic worth to briefly touch upon in the context of this debate.
Mining companies for one are prominently up-to-date with variations in climate, for much of the industry is situated and operating in extreme environments, has a strong dependency on water resources and is constantly trying to predict a response to the shifting demand of minerals. Energy efficiency, securing water resources and a shift away from fossil fuels is what a major part of the industry is hoping to accomplish, but as according to Bour et al. (2020) the ones gaining a true advantage in the industry are the ones efficiently investing in a list of three priorities; developing a climate-conscious business strategy, climate proofing the operations and centralizing climate change as an agenda within the business. An important side note to this would be that by addressing the issues mining companies are in reality also protecting and creating value on their own assets by investing in a variety of adaptation practices proposed by experts of the field.
Mining industry has a potential for a full decarbonization and on some level minerals are able to decarbonize their operations, but it would require significant capital investments, operational efficiency, use of renewable energy and electrification – of which the latter ones in today’s world are in fact fairly accessible for many of the operating mines. As an example, in Henderson and Maksimainen’s (2020) article it is estimated that the cost of battery packs is going to go down by a half from 2017 to 2030, making use of renewable energy fairly applicable even for smaller scale mines. The use of solar power and other kinds of renewable energy sources are already put into use in certain mines. As an example a multinational mining company BHP has stated that by mid-2020’s, it will have its huge Chilean mine use 100 percent renewable energy sources to meet its power needs, according to Parkinson (2019). By doing so the company is not only making environmental-friendly business solutions but also creating social acceptance in the area in terms of mining, as it is also publicly striving towards Chile’s “Energia 2050” policy, which is targeting to make 70 percent of Chile’s energy to come from renewable energy sources by 2050 (Ministerio de Energía, 2015).
Globally for the mining industry to pursue the targets set by the SDG’s, the supply chains need to find well-balanced solutions for adaptation and mitigation, to answer the increasing demand for rare metals and minerals while also crucially striving towards decarbonization.
A few brief examples from Hodgkinson & Smith (2018) lists how the mining companies could also potentially benefit from the changes:
The improvements in energy efficiency greatly reduces operational costs and improves energy security
Makes companies and mines economically and physically less exposed to climatic conditions and extreme weather events
Potential policy changes and improved governance has the power to influence innovations, research and development, secure increasing support from communities, encourage recycling and the use of renewables.
While much of the positive linkages between mining and climate change in reality remain far in the background in the face of the much more negative effects, there is still room for change from the “business-as-usual” way of thinking. Much more efficient actions within the industry are well needed in terms of climate change and in addition to policies and stricter governance it remains with the companies to develop their operations and solve the issues with the help of many frameworks and solutions available. With the increasing social opposition, policy changes, economically through vigilant grown investors and physically due to extreme weather events, the mining sector is obligated to feel the pressure to tackle the issues sooner or later. This, as previously mentioned, will lead to the “winners” and “losers” of the industry, depending on how the companies are able to prepare for the changes.
Hodgkinson, J. H., & Smith, M. H. (2018). Climate change and sustainability as drivers for the next mining and metals boom: The need for climate-smart mining and recycling. Resources Policy,101205. doi:10.1016/j.resourpol.2018.05.016.
Although mining has several negative effects that conflict with the SDG targets, mining also brings benefits to the mining area and its immediate proximity. The opening of mines will bring infrastructure, attract experts and increase the number of jobs in the area and therefore improve the position of women and lift families out of poverty.
When considering possible positive effects in addition to mining, the infrastructure that enables operations is often the first to come to mind. Based on literature, (Williams et al. 2020) mining activities may attract state and local governments to expand their services especially by improving the public facilities that can increase investment or business opportunities. Adequate infrastructure and better transport connectivity tend to improve productivity, economic growth, and sustainability (Williams et al. 2020, 1126).
In addition to the road network, the possibility of using electricity and the internet are also an important part of the developments of public facilities and households. Electricity has a significant role to play in achieving development as its provision improves the ability to meet basic needs such as health, education, food, and water (Haselip et al. 2004). The internet, on the other hand, provides significant cost savings to various businesses, resulting in lower prices to consumers and faster economic growth (Williams et al. 2020, 1126).
Another effect of mining activities can be through the housing sector. The mining sector requires skilled labour and according to literature (William et al. 2020, 1117), it is unlikely to be satisfied fully by the residential workforce in the region. On the positive side, native populations in mining districts do have a larger share of salaried workers than native populations in non-mining districts. These results suggest that the better average outcomes enjoyed by producing districts are explained by the better educated immigrants that mining activities require and attract (Loyaza et al. 2016, 220). Since a large percentage of mining workers is transient, the demand for rented dwellings will increase more than for purchased or owned ones. Of course, the higher housing costs benefit only a certain group of households (Williams et al. 2020, 1117).
An important factor justifying the mining industry is, of course, economic growth and the fight against poverty. According to literature on the mining industry in Peru (Loyaza et al. 2016), districts with mining activities have about 9% larger consumption per capita and 2.6% less poor and extreme poor population than non-mining districts (Loyaza et al. 2016, 225). Similar, although weaker, results can also be found in Western countries such as the mining areas in Australia. Based on the results presented in the literature, 1% increase in coal employment will reduce the share of low-income families out of total families in the region by 0.06% points and will reduce the share of children below 15 years old in jobless families by 0.03% points (Williams et al. 2020, 1124).
It is widely known that studying or working outside the household improves the position of women and children. It has been found that coal mining activities positively impact the non-mining employment growth (Williams et al. 2020, 1122) and that the labour market opportunities for women change with mining. Before the mine starts producing, women are more likely to work as self-employed agricultural workers which is seasonal by nature and oftentimes paid in kind. Once the mines open and service employment increases rapidly, women move more to cash-based, year-around, or occasional sectors such as services (Kotsadam et al. 2016, 335). Mining activities positively impact the number of people who work in a female-dominated health and social sector, for instance (Williams et al., 2020). Mining also influences other local industries creating employment multipliers that increase employment in unrelated industries through the income spent locally by coal workers (Betz et al. 2015, 113).
Betz, M. R., Partridge, M. D., Farren, M., & Lobao, L. (2015). Coal mining, economic development, and the natural resources curse. Energy Economics, 50, 105-116.
Haselip, J., & Hilson, G. (2005). Winners and losers from industry reforms in the developing world: experiences from the electricity and mining sectors. Resources Policy, 30(2), 87-100.
Kotsadam, A., & Tolonen, A. (2016). African mining, gender, and local employment. World Development, 83, 325-339.
Loayza, N. & Rigolini, J. (2016). The Local Impact of Mining on Poverty and Inequality: Evidence from the Commodity Boom in Peru. World development,84, 219-234.
Williams, G. & Nikijuluw, R. (2020). The economic and social benefit of coal mining: the case of regional Queensland. The Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 64(4), 1113-1132.
Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cobalt and Artisanal Mining
Text by Saara Hurmerinta
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of natural resources including minerals such as cobalt and copper, hydropower potential, significant arable land, immense biodiversity, and the world’s second largest rainforest (The World Bank, 2021). Mineral extraction is the backbone of DRC’s economy with copper and cobalt alone accounting for 85 percent of its export (Baumann-Pauly & Cremerlyi, 2020). However, this has not made DRC and its people rich, in fact, DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world. Of the 90 million Congolese (Statista, 2021) 73 percent live below the international poverty rate of 1,90 dollars a day and 43 percent of children are malnourished (The World Bank, 2021). It also lacks many basic services with only 16 percent of Congolese having access to clean drinking water, 18 percent finishing secondary school and the electrification rate being only 6 percent (Sovacool, 2019). The heavy reliance on one industry alone, especially one as susceptible to price changes as mineral extraction, makes the economy of DRC extremely vulnerable.
DRC is the largest producer of cobalt in the world currently accounting for 70 percent of the world production and has half of all known reserves (U.S. Geological Survey, 2021) (see map below). Currently about half of all cobalt produced is used in rechargeable batteries of electric vehicles, smart phones, and laptop computers (Banza Lubaba Nkulu, Casas, L, Haufroid, De Putter, Saenen, Kayembe-Kitenge, Musa Obadia, Kyanika Wa Mukoma, Lunda Ilunga, Nawrot, Luboya Numbi, Smolders, & Nemery, 2018). With the advance of green technology and electric cars, the demand for cobalt, an essential mineral for lithium-ion batteries, has increased dramatically and is expected to grow four-fold by 2030 (World Economic Forum, 2020). However, cobalt extraction in DRC is associated with several human rights challenges, including poor and dangerous working conditions, health implications due to pollution, child labour as well as conflicts between artisanal and industrial miners and environmental degradation (Sovacool, 2019).
Artisanal and small-scale mining
Artisanal mining means mining by hand or by basic tools. Artisanal or small-scale mining has become a major part of the local economy with more than two million Congolese relying on it for their income who in turn support a further 10 million people (World Economic Forum, 2020) making it the second largest employment sector in DRC(Banza Lubaba Nkulu et al, 2018). The amount of cobalt produced by artisanal and small-scale miners in DRC is estimated to be somewhere between 15 to 30 percent of the total production (World Economic Forum, 2020). In a country where poverty is rife and employment opportunities scarce, mining has become an important source of income for many. While the work is dangerous and can cause serious health problems, it can also provide higher income than many other types of employment. Income varies, but typically reaches 30 to 50 dollars a month (Sovacool, 2019).
Finland is the second largest refiner of cobalt in the world, right after China (van den Brink, Kleijn, Sprecher, & Tukker, 2020). Cobalt extracted by artisanal miners frequently gets mixed with industrially mined material making it all but impossible to trace the source of cobalt used in the end products (Baumann-Pauly & Cremerlyi, 2020). This means that it is very likely that some of the cobalt brought to Finland for refining has been extracted in questionable conditions. Since DRC produces most of the cobalt required for battery technology, which we all rely on, we are all responsible for finding ways to solve the challenges associated with cobalt extraction.
Key negative impacts of mining in DRC
Artisanal miners operate in appalling conditions. Tools used are crude, protective gear is non-existent and mineshafts are unstable, work is physically demanding, workdays are long and child labour is rife (Sovacool, 2019). High levels of cobalt have been linked to for example lung disease and heart failure and miners have been found to be prone to silicosis and tuberculosis (Watts, 2019).
The mining region of DRC is considered one of the most polluted regions in the world, mainly due to metal mining (Van Brusselen, Kayembe-Kitenge, Mbuyi-Musanzayi, Lubala Kasole, Kabamba Ngombe, Musa Obadia, Kyanika wa Mukoma, Van Herck, Avonts, Devriendt, Smolders, Banza Lubaba Nkulu, & Nemery, 2020). Environmental impacts include biodiversity loss and destruction of natural habitat, deforestation, soil erosion, air pollution, siltation of wetlands, changes in river ecology and land instability (Sovacool, 2019). Environmental degradation has a direct effect on the health of people and for example children in mining areas have been found to be heavily contaminated by cobalt (Banza Lubaba Nkulu et al, 2018).
Artisanal miners are at risk of exploitation by their bosses and the companies they sell the cobalt to and mining companies can also artificially depress prices (Sovacool, 2019). The negotiation power of artisanal miners is weak. There is no nationally representative union, social movements for mining rights are scarce and when opposition occurs, it is often local and suppressed fast (Sovacool, 2019). Another problem is the volatility of cobalt price, it can vary dramatically which directly affects the income of miners and the number of people engaged in artisanal mining.
In the case of DRC, the term resource curse is sometimes used. Despite immense natural resources, or because of it, the country has a long history of poverty, corruption, weak state, conflict, exploitation, and colonialism. The strong reliance on mining alone means that other economic sectors are underdeveloped, and corruption and poor governance means investment in infrastructure, education and healthcare is low (Sovacool, 2019).
Responsibly sourced cobalt
Despite its many problems, artisanal mining is an extremely important source of income for many in DRC. In a country where 80 percent of the population is estimated to be either unemployed or underemployed, artisanal mining provides much needed income (World Economic Forum, 2020). Banning the use of cobalt extracted by artisanal miners would thus be detrimental to the livelihood of a large number of Congolese. It would also be very impractical as with the increasing demand for cobalt, production outside DRC will not be able to meet this demand. However, action should be taken to improve the lot of these artisanal miners.
The increased awareness of human rights violations associated with cobalt extracted in DRC has led some companies to source their cobalt elsewhere (Baumann-Pauly, 2020). However, due to the importance of cobalt as a source of income for Congolese, rather than excluding cobalt extracted by artisanal mining from the supply chain a common standard should be created (Baumann-Pauly, 2020). This industry wide standard for mine safety and child labour would define responsible artisanal mining and improve the confidence of both consumers and the industry that when sourcing cobalt from DRC, they are not contributing to human rights violations (Baumann-Pauly, 2020).
Formalizing artisanal mining
Formalization processes of artisanal and small-scale farming have been experimented in some mining sites to regulate mining methods and working conditions (Baumann-Pauly, 2020). Typically, a formalization process involves setting up a cooperative, which miners must join, fencing off mining areas with access control and introducing safety measures (World Economic Forum, 2020). In some cases, the cooperatives work closely with a mining company that may prepare open pits for artisanal miners and hold exclusive rights to purchasing the supply (World Economic Forum, 2020). This arrangement has however raised critique. Corporate-led formalization processes can be seen as a way for companies to shift the risk of price fluctuation and reputational risk from corporations to artisanal miners (Calvão, Mcdonald, & Bolay, 2021). The formalization process may thus benefit mining companies rather than artisanal miners.
Other employment opportunities
Despite its economic importance, it seems unlikely that artisanal mining will improve the quality of life of people in the long run (Perks, 2011). Artisanal mining, as well as child labour, is poverty driven (Perks, 2011) and lack of other employment opportunities drive people to artisanal mining. Therefore, all measures that alleviate poverty will reduce the number of people engaged in artisanal mining and reduce the negative impacts. Due to the heavy dependence on mining in DRC, other economic sectors have been neglected (Perks, 2011) and thus offer few employment opportunities. Investing in economic diversification and providing other employment opportunities, such as farming, manufacturing, and commerce, could greatly benefit the local people and reduce their reliance on artisanal mining for income.
United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
In DRC, mining is closely connected to many of the sustainable development goals set by the United Nations. Most pressing are perhaps the SDG number 1 ‘No poverty’ and SDG number 8 ‘Decent work and economic growth’. However, the pursuit of economic improvements can have, and has had, detrimental consequences on the environment thus the need for environmental regulation should not be forgotten either. Despite its vast natural resources, the majority of Congolese live in poverty, are unemployed or underemployed and many, even children, work in appalling conditions in artisanal mines. Due to the central role of mining in the economy of DRC and as an employer, addressing the challenges associated with the mining sector are a key in leading the country out of poverty as well as creating decent employment opportunities and securing decent income for the people of DRC.
The cobalt in our mobile phones, laptops and electric vehicles come at a high human cost to the artisanal miners in DRC. It is the responsibility of us all to ensure a living wage and decent working condition to the people making our digital leap and carbon neutral future possible. However, the task is not easy as the challenges associated with mineral extraction in DRC are complicated, wicked problems for which no simple solution exists. Formalization and standardisation processes are only the first step to improve the working conditions of artisanal miners, however, as it is unlikely to yield long-term economic benefits, more comprehensive measures are required to truly achieve a change. These measures would include stronger government institutions and negotiation power, eradication of corruption, diversification of the economy and investment in infrastructure, healthcare and education making it possible for people to make a living outside the mining sector.
Banza Lubaba Nkulu, C., Casas, L, Haufroid, V., De Putter, T., Saenen, N.D., Kayembe-Kitenge, T., Musa Obadia, P., Kyanika Wa Mukoma, D., Lunda Ilunga, J.-M., Nawrot, T.S., Luboya Numbi, O., Smolders, E., & Nemery, B. (2018). Sustainability of Artisanal Mining of Cobalt in DR Congo. Nature sustainability 1(9), 495–504
van den Brink, S., Kleijn, R., Sprecher, B., & Tukker, A. (2020). Identifying supply risks by mapping the cobalt supply chain. Resources, Conservation and Recycling156
Van Brusselen, D., Kayembe-Kitenge, T., Mbuyi-Musanzayi, S., Lubala Kasole, T., Kabamba Ngombe, L., Musa Obadia, P., Kyanika wa Mukoma, D., Van Herck, K., Avonts, D., Devriendt, K., Smolders, E., Banza Lubaba Nkulu, C., & Nemery, B. (2020). Metal Mining and Birth Defects: a Case-Control Study in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lancet Planet health4(4), e158–e167
Calvão, F., Mcdonald, C.E.A., & Bolay, M. (2021). Cobalt Mining and the Corporate Outsourcing of Responsibility in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The extractive industries and society, n. pag.
Perks, R. (2011). ‘Can I go?’—Exiting the artisanal mining sector in the Democratic Republic of Congo Journal of International DevelopmentJ. Int. Dev. 23, 1115–1127
Sovacool, B.K. (2019). The Precarious Political Economy of Cobalt: Balancing Prosperity, Poverty, and Brutality in Artisanal and Industrial Mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The extractive industries and society 6(3), 915–939
Democratic Republic of Congo is the world’s leading producer of raw cobalt – according to U.S. Geological Survey (2021) approximately 70 percent of the world’s cobalt is extracted in the DRC. After China, Finland is the second largest refiner of cobalt in the world (Statista, 2020). In 2018, Finland’s global market share was roughly 15 percent (Lindström & Rigatelli, 2021). Despite the small-scale cobalt extracting in Finland (as a by-product of other minerals), the refining industry relies heavily on imported cobalt.
The cobalt refining industry in Finland is concentrated into two industrial parks: Kokkola Industrial Park and Harjavalta Industrial Park (see map above). In Harjavalta, the production is run by a Russian-based company Norilsk Nickel. According to Nornickel representatives, the cobalt refined in Harjavalta is imported primarily from Russia by rail (Gerden, 2020; Jurvelin, 2021; Nornickel, 2021b). Nornickel does also have connections to Africa: it owns 50 percent of South-African nickel mine called Nkomati (Nornickel, 2021a). However, the import destinations of the minerals extracted in Nkomati remain slightly obscure. In April 2021, Nornickel announced that it would increase its production capacity in Harjavalta in the coming years (Nornickel Harjavalta, 2021). Nevertheless, Nornickel’s main product is nickel, not cobalt. If we look solely at cobalt, the largest volume of refining in Finland occurs in Kokkola.
Kokkola Industrial Park has two transnational corporations, who are running the cobalt refining business (see map below). They are the Belgian-based Umicore Oy and American-based Freeport Cobalt Oy (a subsidiary of Freeport-McMoRan). Both companies import cobalt from the DRC. Freeport Cobalt Oy imports from Tenke Fungurume mine, which it previously owned, but sold to China Moly in 2017 (Reuters, 2017). In December 2020, Freeport Cobalt announced that it was granted a recognition by Responsible Minerals Initiatives (RMI), which validates that its cobalt is responsibly sourced (Freeport Cobalt Oy, 2020).
Umicore cobalt sourcing is more diversified than Freeport Cobalt. In their website, Umicore underlines that their cobalt is exempted from artisanally and small-scale mined materials (ASM), and that in 2018, 75 percent of the cobalt used in Umicore’s refineries are received from ”large-scale mining (LSM) activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo” (Umicore Oy, 2021). However, the section of ”Origin of cobalt raw materials” includes only a few short sentences, and leaves questions hanging in the air. For example, where does the last quarter of cobalt come from? In May 2019, Umicore and Glencore (an Anglo-Swiss multinational mining company) entered into a long-term agreement on supply of cobalt from Glencore’s mines KCC and Mutanda, which are located in the DRC (Cooke, 2021; Glencore, 2019). Glencore’s mining practices have been widely accused of exploitation of child labour, human rights issues and environmental destruction (Kelly, 2019).
So the key question is whether the cobalt industry in Finland has any negative spillovers in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Most likely the answer is yes. It’s not solely a problem caused by the multinational companies working in Finland, but it’s rather a larger systematic problem. Because of the complicated and multi-staged supply and production chains, it’s almost impossible to fully trace the origin of the cobalt and ensure its accountability. The World Economic Forum estimated in their report (2020), that 15-30 percent of the cobalt extracted in the DRC is artisanally mined. Artisanally mined cobalt is linked to serious human right risks and violations. Large-scale mining (or ”industrial mining”) products are frequently mixed with artisanally mined cobalt (Baumann-Pauly & Cremerlyi, 2020), and it is therefore very likely that cobalt imported into Finland is also partly artisanally mined. It’s also noteworthy that the companies mentioned above are eagerly proclaiming the sustainability of their production and responsibility, but at the same time they’re very vague on their cobalt sources. This can also just strengthen the hypothesis that even the refineries are not entirely sure where their cobalt comes from.
Cooke, P. (2021). The lithium wars: From kokkola to the congo for the 500 mile battery.Sustainability (Basel, Switzerland), 13(4215), 4215. doi:10.3390/su13084215
Positive links to the SDGs in Tenke Fungurume & Kokkola refinery cases
Text by Hanna Kuivalainen
Like Koivula has very well opened, mining can never be fully sustainable in all three dimensions of being ecologically, socially and economically sustainable. At least one, often all areas, are somehow compromised. Still, many positive spillover effects can be linked to the mining industry especially when looking at the employment effect, which often contributes in terms of well-being to the whole community.
In this text we will take a closer look at the positive spillovers of Kokkola Cobalt Refinery in Finland and Tenke Fungurume Mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo (see map above and table 1 below). These two example cases are selected for the review because the spillover effects of the mining industry are diverse and appear differently in different societal contexts. Kokkola Refinery, therefore, represents a responsible Western actor with strong control of local government and authorities under strict legislation. Tenke Fungurume Mine on the other hand represents a mine in a developing country where stability and inequality of society often challenges the sustainability of acting. In developing countries, where there is no reliable government and enforcement, mining appears to have more far-reaching negative than positive spillover effects on the society. When researching, especially the positive spillovers of mining, we must remember to be extremely critical since the findings are often presented by the mining actors themselves. Therefore, the results might be manipulated to justify the action.
Table 1: Key facts about Tenke Fungurume Mine and Kokkola Cobalt Refinery.
Table 2: Positive links to the SDGs.
Kokkola Cobalt Refinery
One of the biggest Cobalt refineries in the world, share of global cobalt market about 15% (Sajari 2017)
Employment opportunities outside of national growth centres, economic growth & tax revenues
The cobalt refinery employs approximately 650 people in total, making it a major employer in Kokkola, a Finnish provincial city of a bit less than 50 000 inhabitants. The refinery is contributing to the inhabitants’ well-being through creating important employment opportunities. The number of employees in the activities run by Umicore Finland Oy has been steadily growing from 415 people in 2016 to 452 in 2019. The latest numbers including i.e. the effects of the covid-19 pandemic to the annual turnover or number of employees are not yet openly available. (Finder 2019, Hakala 2020)
Following the global trend of increasing urbanization, Finland is projected to have only three growing urban centres by 2040. (MDI 2019) The refinery provides much needed employment to the shrinking provincial centres, of which Kokkola is one.
Refinement activity is considered a part of the secondary sector of the economy, referred to also as the manufacturing or production sector. The secondary sector has traditionally formed a substantial part of the GDP of developed countries and fostered industrialization. Manufacturing industry takes the outputs (raw materials) of the primary sector (such as mining) and uses them to produce a higher value added product, making the sector an important engine of economic growth. Countries exporting manufactured products usually generate higher GDP growth (compared to countries exporting raw materials) which supports higher incomes and tax revenues needed to fund quality-of-life initiatives such as health care and infrastructure. The field is also an important source for engineering jobs. (Gyathri 2016)
Learning opportunities and engaging the youth
The refinery collaborates with the universities, polytechnics and vocational schools of the region in order to raise the industry’s visibility among the youth and promote the different employment opportunities offered. The refinery facilitates many different ways to secure a job, such as internships, apprenticeships and on-the-job training periods. Work tasks are rotated where possible to ensure continuous learning and better job satisfaction. (Hakala 2020)
Keeping up with the requirements of a healthy and just working environment
The refinement activities generate cobalt dust, which is a health hazard and potentially carcinogenic. Protection from the dust is provided through motorized and non-motorized masks of the highest protection class P3. In the future, the more expensive motorized masks will be made available for all employees. Dust levels are continuously measured from the air of the production facilities.
Workspaces tend to be also hot and noisy. Noise is controlled with earmuffs. In the past, the temperature in the production hall could rise to more than forty degrees celsius, but thanks to a new ventilation system the hall now cools down more efficiently.
Eye showers are available throughout the production facility in case of accidental contact of the eye with cobalt chemicals. Workers must wear goggles, a helmet and any other protective equipment where deemed necessary.
The health of the refinery employees is monitored, and workers’ urine is screened to measure cobalt levels.
Labor rights are promoted through i.e. the existence of labor unions as well as workplace stewards, in accordance with the requirements of the Finnish law. (Hakala 2020)
Promoting sustainable production
From the Freeport Cobalt Oy website:
“We are the first cobalt chemical company to achieve Conformant Cobalt Downstream Facility status through the Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMI)’s Downstream Assessment Program (DAP). The RMI developed the Downstream Assessment Program to assess downstream companies within the cobalt or tin, tantalum, tungsten and old (3TGs) supply chains. It uses third-party auditors to independently assess and verify that companies have systems in place to responsibly source minerals in alignment with OECD Guidelines for Responsible Supply Chain of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas.”
The corporate policies of Freeport Cobalt include sustainability policies and programs, including (but not limited to) Safety and Health, Environmental, Social Performance, and Responsible Sourcing of Minerals. (Freeport Cobalt 2021)
Tenke Fungurume Mine
Largest copper producer in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and one of the largest cobalt reserves in the world (Mining Data Online 2020)
Employment for the local vulnerable population & economic growth and tax revenues for the developing nation
In 2017, the mining sector accounted for 17,40% of DRC’s GDP, 55,16% of total government revenues, 99,3% of total exports and a quarter of total employment (EITI 2021). DRC’s economic growth is mainly driven by the mining industry, which is led by a robust demand from China. The country’s economic growth decelerated from its pre-COVID level of 4.4% in 2019, to an estimated 0.8% in 2020. (The World Bank 2021)
DRC has the third largest population of poor globally (The World Bank 2021). The mining sector represents an important income opportunity for that vulnerable part of the population.
The Tenke Fungurume mine employs more than 15,000 workers. In addition, there are about 110,000 regular artisanal miners in the Katanga region, rising to about 150,000 on a seasonal basis. (Amnesty International 2019)
Promoting workers’ rights and decent compensation
The Tenke Fungurume mine’s large number of employees gives the workers more momentum and makes it harder for the company to just dismiss their claims.
In may 2020 the mine’s workers had a strike that ended in a compromise agreement with the management over compensation for working in isolation for two months due to COVID-19. The agreement addressed the issues of the ‘isolation bonus’, working hours and the conditions under which workers can rotate. (Reuters 2020)
Community projects by mining companies in the lack of state intervention
The Democratic Republic of Congo can be described as a failed state, where the government has been unable to fulfill its responsibility of providing its citizens security and access to basic services, partly due to the combination of decades of civil war and armed violence together with wide-spread corruption (Titeca & De Herdt 2011). Where the state is not capable of taking care of its citizens, private companies have the possibility to step up and take part of the task.
Mining companies should comply with the recently iterated Congolese mining law that requires mining companies to contribute a set percentage of their revenue directly to local development. (International Crisis Group 2020)
Indeed, mining companies have had some development projects in Congo recently: Umicore, for example, has built a school, and Glencore has run summer camps. Companies support agricultural projects to find alternative sources of income to mining. (Yle 2021)
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 South 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.
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.
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
The Wall Street Journal (2021) Shift to Electric Vehicles Spurs Bid to Make More Batteries in U.S. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-mounts-a-charge-to-take-on-china- the-king-of-electric-vehicle-batteries-11611658235
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).
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.
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.
Anastasio, M. (2020). Europe’s strategy for critical raw materials “a double-edged sword”. https://eeb.org/europes-strategy-for-critical-raw-materials-a-double-edged-sword/. Accessed: 23.4.2021.
Bobba, S., Carrara, S., Huisman, J., Mathieux, F., Pavel, C. (2020). Critical Raw Materials for Strategic Technologies and Sectors in the EU: A Foresight Study. https://rmis.jrc.ec.europa.eu/uploads/CRMs_for_Strategic_Technologies_and_Sectors_in_the_EU_2020.pdf. Accessed: 23.4.2021.
de Blas, I., Mediavilla, M., Capellán-Pérez, I., & Duce, C. (2020). The limits of transport decarbonization under the current growth paradigm. Energy Strategy Reviews, 32, 100543. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.esr.2020.100543
European Commission1. (2010). Europe 2020. A European strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. https://ec.europa.eu/eu2020/pdf/COMPLET%20EN%20BARROSO%20%20%20007%20-%20Europe%202020%20-%20EN%20version.pdf. Accessed: 23.4.2021.
European Commission2. (2019). COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL, THE COUNCIL, THE EUROPEAN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMITTEE AND THE COMMITTEE OF THE REGIONS. The European Green Deal.
European Commission5. (2020). COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, THE COUNCIL, THE EUROPEAN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMITTEE AND THE COMMITTEE OF THE REGIONS Critical Raw Materials Resilience: Charting a Path towards greater Security and Sustainability.
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
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
Toivonen, J. (2021). Analyysi: Kaustisen suurta litiumkaivosta on vaikea vastustaa, niin hyvältä kaikki näyttää – hankkeessa on vain yksi kipukohta. https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-11805712. Accessed: 29.4.2021.
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:
Mining of nickel (thousand tons)
% of global mining
4. New Caledonia
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.
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.
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