Global green tech revolution at risk, India can play role in reforming mining practices: Experts

PTI, Jan 14, 2020, 4:12 PM IST

New Delhi: Green technology comes at a price and India can play a pivotal role in breaking the “green curse” by persuading South Asian countries to adopt sustainable practices in mining critical minerals needed for solar power devices and the like, say experts.

Researchers, including Salim H. Ali from the University of Delaware, published a study recently to discuss how the global revolution to develop green, or low-carbon technology, could be at risk unless new international agreements are put in place to ensure a sustainable supply of rare minerals and metals.

“Many countries are now stricken with the ‘green curse’,” Ali, an environment and energy researcher, told PTI in a telephonic interview.

“Green curse” refers to a situation when a country’s increased investment in renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, generates a new set of resource and energy-related violent conflicts, he said.

The study, published in the journal Science, explained it further.

“Mining for copper, needed for electric wires and circuits and thin-film solar cells, and mining for lithium used in batteries, has been criticised in Chile for depleting local groundwater resources across the Atacama Desert, destroying fragile ecosystems, and converting meadows and lagoons into salt flats,” the researchers wrote, citing an example.

“Metals and minerals are needed for low-carbon transition. But the current methods used for extracting them are dangerous and damaging to both the environment and surrounding communities,” study co-author Benjamin Sovacool from the University of Sussex in the UK told PTI.

According to Ali, countries like India should look at more sustainable mining models.

“Mining is still done using old outdated models in many low- and middle-income countries,” he added.

In his view, India is well positioned to drive policies and new conversations as the leader of the International Solar Alliance (ISA), a coalition of 121 countries initiated by India in 2015 to work for efficient exploitation of solar energy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

The demand for materials and metals used to build low-carbon technology may grow immensely in the next few decades, the study noted.

“We are not creating a negative outlook, but stating that there is an opportunity for making mining for these minerals more responsible. The projected increase in demand could be potential good news for a country like India but it should be handled with care,” Ali explained.

According to scientists, the amount of cobalt, copper, lithium, cadmium, and rare earth elements needed for low-carbon technologies like solar photovoltaic cells, electric vehicle (EV) motors and batteries, wind turbines, and nuclear reactors will grow at a rapid pace in the upcoming years.

Materials used in electric vehicles (EVs), for instance, may grow in demand by 87,000 per cent, 1,000 per cent for wind power, and 3,000 per cent for solar cells from 2015 to 2060.

While this projected increase could be good news for countries rich in mineral and metal wealth, Ali said the need of the hour is to establish environmentally friendly mining governance across the world, especially in low- and middle-income countries.

Given the centrality of metals and minerals in low-carbon technology, India can help shape the important discussion on the need for materials security policies to be actively incorporated in future climate planning meets, he said.

“Climate goals and targets of countries must include elaborate policies on how these minerals are mined. Separate protocols on material supply for green technology, including their environmental, social, economic outcomes must be drafted,” Ali said.

According to Ali, current mining operations in India are largely domestic, and mostly involve extraction of energy-minerals including coal, oil, and natural gas by Indian players like Vedanta Resources Limited and Adani Group.

As a result, mining in India is not getting enough foreign attention, he said.

“Strategic foreign investment is needed on non-energy minerals to improve India’s mining contribution. India needs to move away from energy-based minerals and needs to extensively map non-energy ores across the states,” Ali said.

China dominates the global mineral supply chain since it played a pivotal role in extensively mapping its abundance of rare-earth elements (REEs) but its mining practices are environmentally damaging and need to be revamped, he said. REEs like neodymium and dysprosium are needed for magnets in electric generators and wind turbines, and motors in EVs.

“Better coordination between foreign investment, local artisanal miners, and domestic companies in a strategic public-private partnership can benefit India,” Ali said.

“If the reserves are relatively small, small scale mining can be an efficient investment, increasing labour opportunities,” he added.

In the Science study, the researchers also recommended that countries expand the recycling and reuse of rare minerals to extend product lifetimes.

“As the global energy landscape changes, it is becoming more mineral and metal intensive,” Morgan Bazillian, study co-author from the Colorado School of Mines in the US, said in a statement.

“Thus, the sustainability and security of material supply chains is essential to supporting the energy transition. How we shape that pathway will have important consequences for everything from the environment, to development, and geopolitics,” Bazillian added.

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