Why renewable energy may not be as ‘clean’ as you think – Dr Richard Dixon

Last week we hosted a visit to Glasgow by Lucio Cuenca from Chile. He is the Director of the Observatory for Environmental Conflicts in Latin America and the coordinator of the organising committee for the People’s Summit in Chile, planned as a parallel event to this year’s UN Climate Conference.

He was in the UK to ask questions at the AGM of mining firm BHP Billiton and came to Scotland to talk about this and the Chilean experience of organising civil society around the UN Climate Conference, just as we are beginning to do ahead of next year’s conference in Glasgow.

While he was here, he met Glasgow councillors, spoke to youth activists, held a meeting with the environment, development and social groups who are gearing up for the 2020 climate conference coming to Scotland, and gave an evening lecture on BHP and more generally on the impacts of mining companies in Chile.

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BHP is trying to position itself as a leader in the transition to a zero-carbon world because they produce the minerals needed to boost renewable energy and make electric car batteries and motors. The chief executive has said the company is “the locomotive of the green future”.

This despite the fact that BHP was the only mining company in a recent Guardian Top 20 carbon polluting companies. BHP mines copper in Chile and coal in Australia and Colombia, including a one-third share in the controversial Cerrejón coal mine, the largest in Latin America.

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Around the AGM, Lucio joined visitors representing communities in Brazil, Colombia and Chile meeting with BHP’s investors. Their copper mining operation in Chile uses a huge amount in a country which has been suffering a ‘mega-drought’ for a decade.

Chile also has the world’s largest reserves of lithium by a considerable margin – essential for the current types of batteries powering everything from your mobile phone to electric buses. Another company’s lithium-mining operation is in the Atacama salt flats and is further depleting water resources in an area already badly short of water, with effects on local communities and protected lagoons.

Safe, healthy and pleasant

Lucio’s view is that mining in Chile cannot expand without violating human rights. Continued extraction is, in part, being driven by pension funds that invest in BHP and other mining companies, including £17.5m in BHP from the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Local Government pension funds.

Understanding the human and environmental cost of mining means we need to get much better at reducing our need for metals and at recovering and recycling those metals. Recycling copper saves about 85 per cent of the energy of mining and refining new copper, yet only a third of copper used in new products today comes from recycling copper. Only about half of lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled.

We do need to expand renewable energy very rapidly, but we need to reduce the need for energy rapidly too by making buildings and industrial processes much more efficient. We do need electric vehicles but if we just replace every single car on the road with an electric one, we will have missed the opportunity to transform our towns and cities into human-centred spaces that are safe, healthy and pleasant to be in.

The transition to a zero-carbon society is vitally important and we need to make very rapid progress but that transition needs to be a just one, both at home and abroad.

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Dr Richard Dixon is director of Friends of the Earth Scotland