Dangerous Scramble for Renewable Energy Resources

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Yves here. Some commentators have pointed out that most so-called renewables are mislabeled. They require the use of materials that are not in infinite supply (particularly if battery storage is part of normal use case) and often entail environmental costs in mining and disposal. This article focuses on the potential for conflict between local populations and multinational interests over the effort to secure sources for now-critical materials like lithium.

Jomo effectively points out that sustainability may actually mean sustainability for advanced economies, and not the countries that possess these critical materials and bear the extraction, habitat destruction, and other extraction costs. And that’s before getting to the possibility of resource wars.

By Jomo Kwame Sundaram, former UN Assistant Secretary General for Economic Development. Originally published at Jomo’s website

The growing and changing material requirements for new technologies have triggered natural resource scrambles for strategic minerals, generating dangerous rivalries fought out in the global South.

Scrambles for Resources

Jayati Ghosh, Shouvik Chakraborty and Debamanyu Das have analyzed these new scrambles for mineral resources in developing countries triggered by major new innovations since the electronics boom.

Natural resources here refer to naturally occurring solid, liquid or gaseous materials in or on the Earth’s crust. When extracted and exported commercially, they are considered primary commodities.

All technologies – both peaceful and military – have specific material requirements. For example, energy transitions need particular minerals for renewable energy generation, transmission and storage.

New technologies, with specific material requirements, are changing the nature of rivalries – among states, corporations and individuals – seeking to control these mineral resources.

Feasible mass use of renewable energy requires extracting needed natural resources, which incurs costs and has adverse consequences. Commercial feasibility implies profitable extraction of desired minerals.

Thus, addressing global warming by generating more energy from renewable sources – while desirable and necessary – in turn generates new problems and challenges which need to be addressed.

Rare Earths

Despite their name, rare earth elements (REE) may not actually be scarce. But most REE are difficult and costly to extract as they are usually found together with other minerals. Unsurprisingly, REE demand and supplies have changed greatly in recent years.

For the time being, demand for at least 17 ‘rare earth’ minerals is expected to grow. The inter-governmental International Energy Agency (IEA) projects supplies of some critical minerals will increase at least 30-fold over the next two decades.

Extracting lithium and other such minerals also has very problematic environmental implications. Mined all over the world, REE are usually processed and separated by several stages of often complex and costly extraction and chemical processing, with many harmful to the environment.

China currently leads the world in rare earth production, with over a third of the world’s known REE reserves. While Chinese companies dominate some supplies, China’s rare earth imports currently exceed its exports.

Nevertheless, China dominates ‘downstream’ processing of REEs. Chinese companies control over 85 per cent of the costly REE processing processes. Unsurprisingly, China also accounts for over 70% of the world’s photovoltaic solar panel production and over 90% of its silicon wafer manufacturing.


Lithium is one of the minerals over which control has been hotly contested. Lithium is particularly needed for processes to replace mechanical energy generation using fossil fuels. It is also needed for many industrial, office and household appliances, including rechargeable batteries, electric vehicles and electronic goods.

Batteries – including rechargeable lithium-ion electrical grid storage devices – account for three-quarters of current supply. The IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario expects demand to rise 42-fold in less than two decades!

In 2021, there were almost 89 million tons of known lithium resources, mainly in developing countries. For decades, lithium mining has been very controversial, largely due to increasingly better known adverse environmental impacts.

As pure lithium is very chemically reactive, it is often mined as ore, as in West Australia. It is also obtained from salt flats and brine pools in the southern cone of South America, particularly in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.

For decades, China has led the world in lithium mining. Australia and the US were second and third by the start of the pandemic, with 12% and 9% respectively. While Australia is the world’s largest exporter, lithium is mainly and increasingly mined in developing countries by a relatively few companies.

Undermining Communities

REE mining has adversely impacted various ecosystems and communities. Mineral deposits may have to be raised from subterranean sources, or ‘concentrated’ by evaporation.

Such techniques typically deplete, contaminate and otherwise reduce access to fresh water. Local water systems – used by people, animals, including livestock, and plants, including crops – are often badly compromised as a consequence.

Extractive mining and related operations have worsened such environments. But mining companies can often get their way with impunity, often intimidating communities with the help of local politicians, government officials and police.

Such ecological damage has devastated forest and vegetation cover, caused biodiversity loss, and compromised hydrological systems. Thus, extractive operations often involve abuses, with adverse effects for local communities.

Economic gains to local communities are typically modest compared to mining’s adverse consequences. Benefits largely accrue to local ‘enablers’ while costs vary within communities with circumstances.

The authors also urge majority government ownership of mineral extracting and processing companies. This will reduce foreign reliance and meddling, including by big powers such as the United States and China.

Government transparency and accountability, including independent audits, can help ensure less adverse consequences and fairer compensation for all involved.

This also prevents elite capture, abuse and deployment of mineral rents in their own interest. Avoiding such abuses is necessary to ensure resource rents actually advance sustainable development, as Bolivia is striving to do.

Sustainability Undermined?

New frontiers for mineral extraction are emerging, especially as innovation creates new extraction and processing possibilities. This implies a vicious circle as global warming becomes both cause and effect of such mineral extraction.

Mining practices threaten ecological fragility and vulnerability. Similarly, polar and seabed exploration and mining may well trigger disastrous environmental consequences, including mass extinctions of vulnerable polar and marine life.

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    1. BeliTsari

      And it’s only become newsworthy click-bait, since one nation’s discovered it’s ignored market acceptance of efficient technologies that threaten fossil fueled ICE status quo? PHEV, BEV, PV arrays & renewable energy was marketed to petit bourgeois G7 consumers & investors, as virtue signaling. They’d survived Trump & plateaued, as Biden took the reins (as though, our financial elite forgot to get in, early enough & decided to short, divest or infect China out of the AGW mitigation business (while cutting EU’s gas supply?)


  1. Alice X

    I started in on Kara’s book but had to return it to the library before I got far, I will pick it back up. I gathered enough that cobalt mining in the DRC (the major source) is a travesty for many there. Eight year old kids scraping cobalt compounds up with their bare hands for pennies (cobalt does not occur in pure form on earth).

    From the NYT:

    How Is Your Phone Powered? Problematically.

    Siddharth Kara’s “Cobalt Red” takes a deep dive into the horrors of mining the valuable mineral — and the many who benefit from others’ suffering.

    1. Odysseus

      Our treatment of miners wasn’t handed down on stone tablets from the mountain. We are free to do better at any time.

      What are these governments proposing to improve the lives of miners and eliminate child labor?
      What social movements within the nations are working to improve the lives of miners and eliminate child labor?

  2. Lex

    I’ve worked with the mining industry and it always amazes me how that industry operates in North America (and Australia) versus how it operates elsewhere. I’ve also seen the contrast in the US between metal mines that have been operating for nearly a century versus those that are new construction. It is absolutely possible to build mines with minimal environmental impact, not none but minimal. Where human and environmental heath and safety are primary drivers of operation decisions. And this is possible to do at a profit where wages and other costs are relatively high.

    Yet the same companies that own and operate the N. American mines will behave very differently in South America or Africa.

    1. Revenant

      A friend was discussing how modern Chinese mining operation invest far more in automation and safety equipment, with much lower accident rates than Western mines, let alone third world ones. I will see if he has references on this.

  3. The Rev Kev

    I think that a more dangerous scramble will be for basic resources – like water or land that can have crops grown in it. When push come to shove a modern society can do without Lithium but no society can do without water and arable land. And it’s not like you can make either in large quantities.

    1. Reply

      Bush interests bought land in Guarani aquifer areas in South America.
      Gates buying up farmland in North America.
      Others not as high profile investing, too.

      The Old West had range wars including water rights conflicts. The New West will have resource wars including mining, water, farming, timber, wind, solar, Native dispossession and more.
      Expect some pincer movements or other population control (I.e., reduction) actions to ensue. Now, check your garden and harvest schedule.

      1. thousand points of green

        If you personally can make a set amount of water go twice as far in your life as it now goes, that is almost like having twice that set amount of water.

        If you can do that.

  4. Bryan Steele

    Arguments like this are frustrating because they focus on the complexity of energy transition as if these complexities are a given constant, just like the destructive constants that surround carbon and nuclear generated power. I think this is a subtle and dishonest attempt to create a false equivalency. For instance, electricity storage is not married to any substance or method. We focus on batteries and elements like lithium as if all electric storage will always be tied to practices that undermine political stability and the environment.

    On the supply side, pumped hydro, which uses a highly efficient closed-loop gravity system, is being ignored because there is little room for long-term profit once the system is built. That is the curse of RE, there is no vertical trade opportunity for ongoing profit like with carbon and nuclear because the supply of the underlying fuel is free.

    This article reads like a hit-piece against renewable energy (RE) without an alternative save for the underlying message that maybe carbon and nuclear aren’t so bad.

    I would have welcomed a conclusion that points out how we are using RE to mask the increased use of energy. One of our approaches to global warming needs to include a discussion of the relationship between energy and continued economic expansion.

    1. thousand points of green

      Or also a discussion on how to increase personal and social well-being without any economic expansion at all.

      And then maybe a discussion on how to increase personal and social well-being by pursuing the right kind of economic contraction . . . . which would probably have to be aimed first and hardest against the upper classes.

      If Davos Man had to live like Biweekly-Paycheck-Wage-earner Man, that would allow for some major economic shrinkdown right there. It might require violent armed coercion by a motivated majority to get Davos Man to agree to that, of course.

  5. Bob


    This is more misinformation from the utility boys.

    Hydro power long used to generate electric power without the need for batteries or rare earth materials.
    And there presently exists significant underutilized hydro power sites particularly those included in the lock and dam systems of our major rivers.

    Solar (PV) does not need batteries when integrated with the existing grid. Note that in general the load profile increases during day light hours. Using PV an inexpensive generating asset during daylight periods without battery storage is a viable method of inexpensive power generation.

    Wind resources are well studied (see DOE studies). Wind generation is inexpensive, reliable, and does not require batteries.

    This electric power generation arena is filled with misinformation that does not match the established facts.

    Remember many of the utilities particularly those IOUs have a vested interest in expensive power generation i.e. coal, natural gas, or nuclear since these are cost plus operations.

    1. Heresy101

      Thanks Bob and Bryan for bringing sanity to this fossil fuel article. You helped this energy engineer from.reducing his monthly contribution because of all the pro fossil fuel articles on NC. I know renewables can replace fossil fuels because I took a small utility (400GWh) to 100 percent GHG neutral at 15 percent below PG&E. Solar, wind, batteries, and geothermal are getting cheaper and more reliable and even with fossil fuel propaganda will eliminate fossil fuels.
      Lithium is only one type of battery and a Chinese company has a car running on sodium batteries already.

      1. John Steinbach

        “All the pro fossil fuel Articles on NC” I’ve been a faithful reader here and occasional commenter for 15 years and haver never ever read a pro fossil fuel article here. There have been many here that have argued that “renewables” can at best augment a transition to a future less dependent on fossil fuels and nuclear for energy needs, and that the only rational path forward is a crash program of radical conservation and societal restructuring.

        Sundaram’s observations about the environmental and human rights problems associated with extracting the resources necessary for developing renewable energy are accurate, and, if anything, downplay the situation. (For example recovering lithium is a water-intensive process & the majority of lithium is concentrated in some of the driest environments on earth)

        The idea that anything remotely resembling current “business as usual” energy policies can be continued by implementing technological fixes like renewable energy and nuclear technology are delusional. There simply isn’t the time and resources left before the “Jackpot”, and the opportunity cost of trying will make it impossible to achieve the necessary radical conservation measures.

  6. Prairie Bear

    Good points in the article, but I will mention that it is not just other countries that are being devastated, or about to be, for these “green” materials. There have been numerous stories in the past week or so about the staggeringly huge (supposedly) lithium deposit found in the McDermitt Caldera in northern Nevada/southern Oregon (NYP story was just the first one that popped up just now).

    Thacker Pass is on the southern edge, and indigenous people of the area, in coordination with other activists, have been vigorously fighting plans for lithium mining there for a few years now. They have been slowly losing to the mining company. The operation will devastate the area in ways too numerous to detail here. But of course, to most Americans, most of Nevada is just a huge, empty, boring desert with “nothing out there.”

    As I have before, I will mention Bright Green Lies, a book which covers the topic of “renewable” (spoiler alert: it isn’t) energy exhaustively. There is also an excellent documentary based on the book, available from Vimeo and other sources.

  7. Alena Shahadat

    For those who can read in French, this book by a Congolese journalist Charles Onana recounts the political machinations and plundering of the Congo’s resources and massacres of the populations including repeated terror by a coalition of Rwanda international mafia, the US, The English, ant the EU countries all benefitting from this. Do we know where our lithium in car batteries and other minerals in our cheap electronics come from? I would say no. Their origin is concealed,European compagnies smuggle the resources to be refined in China through Rwanda-owned companies. It is a gruesome and blood chilling account.


    I post this link because in all of the articles on renewable resources, the mention of Congo is conspicuously absent. Do we really want the energy transition be carried out on the graves of millions of innocent people?

    The above article calls for reinforced frameworks and control by the national governements. How can this be carried out if the president who opposes the plundering gets each time conveniently assassinated?

      1. Alena Shahadat

        Yes, it reads like a big international Mafia story, with the Rwanda and also Ouganda Tutsies being an African version of some white supremacist or Nazi movement. I hope we will have an English version soon.

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