Global warning: Capitalist green transition’s critical contradiction

As environmental catastrophe looms large, emphasised by rising temperatures and the increasing prevalence of extreme weather events such as the forest fires and floods that have struck the world over in 2023, the scramble to achieve net zero is intensifying. With growing emphasis on renewable energy and the need to roll out vital infrastructure that will pave the way for a green transition, a global scramble for Rare Earth Elements (REE) and other materials critical for such ventures is well underway. Yet, as efforts to increase exploration, extraction, production and refinement of critical minerals are beginning to ramp up, so too is the competition between rival capitalist forces to corner market share.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that wind and solar energy could account for around 70% of power generation by 2050, up from 9% in 2020, although this is assuming that the global goal of carbon neutrality is met by 2050. Regardless, the IEA reports on a rocketing demand for what it deems ‘green metals’ such as cobalt, copper and nickel, which could see an almost seven-fold increase in production by 2030. Furthermore, the IEA predicts that clean energy manufacturers would need a 40-fold increase in lithium, 25 times more graphite and about 20 times more nickel and cobalt by 2040 than in 2020.

This is because these metals are used in renewable energy production and storage as well as in the development of batteries for electric vehicles. One of the reasons behind the growing push towards renewable energy has been the reliance on Russia for the supply of natural gas across much of Europe, with EU countries importing 45% of their total natural gas supply from Russia in 2021. The war in Ukraine and retaliatory economic sanctions imposed by Western capitalist powers, and the subsequent explosion of fossil fuel prices, provided the impetus for many European countries to diversify their energy supply and seek to transition away from dependence on fossil fuels faster than would otherwise have been the case.

Similarly, as the ongoing trade war between the USA and China continues, mineral mining is an area of fierce competition, with the USA seeking to regain some ground as China dominates in this field. According to a report by the American think-tank the Brookings Institute, China already refines two-thirds of the world’s nickel, 40% of its copper, 59% of its lithium and 73% of the world’s cobalt. In light of this, some US companies have tried to limit their dependency on such materials by finding work arounds; Tesla, for instance, uses less than 5% of cobalt in its car batteries compared with a third just a few short years ago.

The shifting geopolitical landscape – from the unipolar world in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Stalinist states in Russia and eastern Europe, dominated by US capitalism, to the multipolar world of today – is also expressed in the shifting loyalties of countries with raw materials to exploit. The Economist reported that African nations are taking a more pragmatic and transactional approach when striking deals and it would seem a new scramble for Africa is already underway. This is due to Africa being home to around 30% of the world’s mineral resources needed for renewable energy production.

Mineral mining was on the agenda of the recent Russia-Africa summit. Chinese firms have a strong foothold, owning or having a stake in 15 of 19 cobalt mines in the Congo, and the US sent its biggest delegation yet to the mining Indaba, Africa’s largest mining conference earlier this year.

The potential markets being opened up are gargantuan in scale, with the Economist reporting “green commodity superpowers” which could see $1.2 trillion in annual revenue being pumped into their economies with an estimated $2 trillion needed to be spent on exploration and production by 2040.

Currently, mineral reserves are being dug up from land-based mines, often involving dubious mining practices and procedures. According to the International Labour Organization, cobalt and coltan mining are both significant contributors to child and forced labour.

Another issue is the huge environmental destruction being inflicted to, paradoxically, protect the environment. Many mineral deposits are located within rainforests such as in Indonesia, Gabon and Brazil, with growing deforestation taking place. Similarly, tailings, which are waste products left over from processing and extracting ore, are often toxic, radioactive or acidic and can be hugely polluting. Moreover, wastewater from mining processes is difficult to recycle, which adds further pressure when considering the high water usage required in mining in areas which already have stressed water supplies.

The environmental damage is made worse by the fact that over time there has been a worsening quality of mineral deposits as easier, more accessible minerals are extracted. In Chile, copper deposit grades have fallen by 30% in the last 15 years, which is pushing up extraction and processing costs but also requires more carbon-intensive methods to produce the same quantities of minerals needed.

With the environmental damage caused by mining becoming a bigger issue, coupled with the increased insecurities in the supply chain caused by political tensions and producing nations applying an ever-increasing number of trade tariffs, it was inevitable that capitalist corporations would look to new sources for critical raw materials. And it would seem that they have found the answer to the problem of mining on land by looking to mine deep-sea deposits instead.

The deep ocean abyssal plains are covered in polymetallic nodules, made of manganese, cobalt, nickel and copper, which are highly sought after for green technologies. There are six main deep-sea areas that are currently being investigated, but the most interest is currently in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific between Hawaii and Mexico. By May 2022, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) had issued 31 licences to explore the potential of this zone in an area of 1.5 million km2. It is estimated that the CCZ could contain as much as 21.1 billion dry tonnes of mineral bearing nodules which would ease the transition to net-zero technologies.

These nodules are resting on the ocean floor and can be easily collected by robotic suction machines, which vacuum up the nodules, return sediment to the ocean floor and transfer the nodules to ships for basic processing. Companies invested in this process state that there would be practically no by-product waste, in comparison to onshore mining, and that any materials sucked up with the nodules would be returned to the seabed in an environmentally sensitive way.

Many nations and scientific bodies, however, are calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until more robust legislation is in place and the potential damage to the ecosystem can be assessed and understood. Organisations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature have serious concerns about this new and unproven technology, such as the potentially permanent damage to the seafloor ecosystem; many creatures such as anemones attach themselves to these nodules and once removed may never return to the mined areas. Noise from mining and the inevitable plumes of resettling sediment also have the potential to disturb and damage the balance of the ecosystem.

A wider issue is that, according to Greenpeace, the deep sea captures 90% of excess heat and nearly 40% of CO2 generated by human activity. In the midst of a climate crisis, the potential loss of this carbon capture system cannot be underestimated. Despite these concerns, the Kingdom of Nauru (Micronesia), in partnership with Canadian based The Metals Company, has already declared its intention to begin mining its licenced area from as early as 2026, which could potentially bring it into conflict with many neighbouring states, as well as others around the world who are supporting the moratorium. Many of the economies of these states are dependent on marine life and tourism, and one of the main tuna fishing grounds is based within the CCZ area, causing concern for fishing companies.

The ISA has yet to create firm regulations for the exploitation of these deep-sea zones. It is clear, however, that their potential will not be ignored by profit-hungry corporations and, if successful, the implications for the small nations of the Pacific could be wide ranging and potentially catastrophic.

Ultimately, with profits being the main driving factor for mining corporations, coupled with the geopolitical rivalries which are ratcheting up, capitalism offers no way forward in the face of the escalating unfolding climate catastrophe. It is only through international and democratic planning, balancing the need for a swift green transition with stringent democratic controls, informed by science, to protect the needs of people and the planet that a solution can be found, and that degree of democratic cooperation will only be possible in a socialist system.

Ryan Aldred and Alex Sampson