Brumadinho's legacy & How to deflate lithium
We may not need as much lithium as previously thought. Four years after the Brumadinho tailings disaster, industry proposes more industry solutions
Climate technologies require enormous amounts of metal. I’m Ian Morse, and this is Green Rocks, a newsletter that doesn’t want dirty mining to ruin clean energy.
Mines regulate themselves
Wednesday was the fourth anniversary of the apocalyptic tailings dam collapse in Brumadinho, Brazil. Tailings dams store mining waste and can be built precariously on top of themselves. They are likely the largest human-made structure on the planet. Since the disaster, advocates and researchers have tried to raise awareness about tailings dams. We don’t know how many there are out there, but it’s likely many thousands. People who live near them may not know they exist. Incomplete tallies show at least one fails every few months somewhere in the world.
On Wednesday’s anniversary, after a remembrance service in London, investors launched another group to push the industry toward better safety standards. The Global Investor Commission on Mining 2030 plans to identify where there needs to be improvement on just about every issue: “artisanal mining, waste management, biodiversity protection, child labour and the role minerals play in driving conflict,” according to the press release.
The commission is clear about its aims: investors have [in]vested interests in expanding mining, and this initiative is meant to show that it can be done safely. “Recognising the central role the mining industry must play in the transition to a low carbon economy and the vulnerability of supply chains to mineral demand, the Commission will carefully consider the Standards, practical steps and investment needed to secure mining’s future.”
On Tuesday, the UN Environment Program announced the formation of another group to audit companies to make sure they comply with an industry-created tailings safety standard. The Global Tailings Management Institute has some of the same organizations in charge as the investor commission, including the Church of England Pensions Board.
Meanwhile, Brazilian authorities have only just begun the trial against Vale, the company that owned the dam, Tüv Süd, the company that approved its integrity, and 16 employees including Vale’s former chairman. They are charged with 270 counts of aggravated homicides — the number of people who were killed. Three more are still missing.
Among the victims of the disaster was Natalia Andrade, whose sister, Angelica, launched herself into the cutthroat world of advocacy against corporations. She says: “For so long companies operated with poor standards and a lack of ethics that led to immense death and destruction that could and should have been avoided. We won’t accept that anymore.”
How much lithium do we need? How much do we want?
For the first time, a group without ties to industry has attempted to answer how much lithium is needed to decarbonize. Most models of future demand for lithium assume people will buy even more cars in the future as battery capacity also grows. The new report asks questions that might be problematic for groups whose finances are tied to mining and manufacturing. For instance, what if people didn’t buy as many electric vehicles? What if battery firms made smaller batteries?
Asking these questions is worthwhile for practical reasons. Electric vehicles have a place in climate action, but it is going to be very difficult for battery makers to scale up and produce enough products to maintain the current level of car consumption. BloombergNEF found that even a 10% reduction in EV demand would take significant pressure off EV companies. As one analyst there told me, “What was really striking when we were modeling EV uptake was how challenging it would be to produce enough electric cars to have a zero tailpipe emissions fleet by 2050.”
The transformation of transportation may also deepen inequalities both within cities and where materials are mined. Cars are expensive for cities and people, and more pedestrian-focused cities report higher health outcomes and economic equality. At the same time, mining for the materials in cars (aluminum, steel, and plastic are dominant, and lithium and nickel are experiencing the highest growth) has sparked sometimes violent opposition and leads to unequal changes in livelihoods, especially as pollution can ruin farmland and clean water.
Researchers from the Community and Climate Project and University of California-Davis, in a report out Tuesday, find that making cities more dense and boosting mass transit could shrink the need for lithium by up to two thirds. Just limiting the size of batteries could reduce the need for lithium up to 42%. The models adjust these factors in current understandings of the US urban transit mix.
The report also present one of the first scenarios in decarbonized transport that engage with communities and scholars in places where companies plan to extract materials. Authors focus in four cases in Portugal, Nevada, and South America (with the highest reserves, but most lithium comes from Australia). Chilean activist Ramón Balcázar says “producing knowledge in dialogue with the territories directly affected by the expansion of lithium mining is a fundamental step given by the research team towards new mobility paradigms and a just transition for all, which is only one with less mining.”
Meanwhile, Bolivia has just announced its decision regarding an international tender to extract and process its vast reserves of lithium. The world’s largest battery maker, Chinese firm CATL, will lead a group of companies to extract and process the lithium. Considering CATL’s expertise and the government’s prior goal to build a battery plant, that may be still to come. CATL, Bolivian state miner YLB and their partners have no publicly available evidence of experience with the technology used to get the lithium. The Civic Committee of Potosí said it rejected the contract and demanded to know details. The government said it was still negotiating with the five other companies that applied.
The pathways to these low-demand scenarios aren’t the focus of the report, but cities around the world offer plenty of examples.
In Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, the mayor once received a slap to the face for pushing to make his city car-free. Today, downtown has zero cars, the air is cleaner, and business is booming.
In London, opposition to the creation “low-traffic neighborhoods” included death threats to local officials. But in those areas, the air is cleaner.
Paris’ mayor won election while promoting a car ban in some neighborhoods. For the past few years, the city “has done more than almost any city in the world to take space back from cars,” Slate writes.
Congestion pricing in Stockholm was unpopular when it was introduced, but public opinion flipped when people saw what fewer cars could do to a city.
Most examples come from Europe, where cities had been designed before cars were invented. The US will need more idiosyncratic policies to address the miles to get to the grocery store, or the large homes that occupy city land. To that end, the report notes focusing on land-use and zoning laws, which some news media have begun exploring.
Dramatic transformations of transport have occurred before, although sometimes in the opposite direction. In the US, the report notes, government built extensive highways and subsidized the creation of suburbs. It was neither smooth nor cheap; cities displaced poor residents that it had already disadvantaged and devoted space that was once for businesses, residence or pedestrians into parking.
The New York Times notes that “single-family zoning is practically gospel in America.” Addressing the dominance of these homes (in some cities, they occupy more than 80% of land) can offer benefits not only for the climate, but for housing affordability and racial equity.
Report co-author Kira McDonald says:
There is definitely political difficulty posed by the political power of car manufacturing, road building, and associated industries in this country. There is also status quo bias from people who are used to car dependency.
In the context of our existing policies and built environment, cars are the most convenient way to get around for most people — but it has taken a broad set of active interventions to make that the case.
There is a pretty consistent pattern where policies that can decrease the relative convenience of driving compared to other options (such as turning street space for cars into space for walking, biking, or public transit; implementing congestion pricing; or creating car-free city centers) often face popular political opposition before they are implemented but become very popular after the fact.
I think that is an important lesson learned from these other examples — that people in the US domestically also stand to gain from system changes that would also reduce the lithium demand and resource intensity of the transportation system, and the policies that could help get us there could become very politically popular.
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