Where The Copper Hits The Road

The clean vs. green politics of the energy transition.

Ibrahim Rayintakath for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

It is a mark of just how deeply the world has moved into the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables that tough choices among the climate-minded are rending the ecological sensibility.

The politics of the future will be less about convincing those who deny our biosphere is in trouble than about how constituencies who share the same goal can balance the tradeoffs between sustainable growth through clean technologies and protection of the ecosystem that constitutes the Earth’s self-regulatory capacity.

Recent episodes across the planet from Panama to Norway are portents of this new clean vs. green politics.

Copper is a key component of electric cars, wind turbines and transmission lines critical to building out a renewable energy infrastructure. One of the largest copper mines in the world, owned by a Canadian firm, is in Panama. Yet, in November, the government said it would shut it down, bowing to massive protests against the operation for causing irreversible damage to the rainforest, a cause that attracted global support from the likes of Leo DiCaprio to Greta Thunberg. For good measure, the government also banned all future mining.

There are similar issues in Chile, where the government last year took the opposite course, approving the extension of a mining contract at the famous Los Bronces open-pit copper mine that environmentalists argue is releasing dust pollution that contributes to the melting of glaciers in the region while also despoiling local water supplies. As the U.S. government is promoting domestic supply-chain resilience in key minerals needed for clean technology and artificial intelligence, the same issue is facing states like Arizona and New Mexico, where local residents protest that copper mining is both polluting and depleting groundwater aquifers in already arid territory.

Norway is one of the world’s largest oil spigots, even as it derives a remarkable 98% of its electricity production from renewables. Now, against the resistance of environmentalists who worry it will damage fragile marine ecosystems, a parliamentary majority has just approved deep-sea mining on a commercial scale for minerals to aid the energy transition. “The renewable green industries run on minerals. This is an important contribution internationally,” one member of parliament said.

Like other seabeds around the world, those in Norwegian waters are believed to contain huge deposits of minerals needed for electric batteries, wind turbines and other green technologies, including copper, cobalt and rare earth metals such as neodymium and dysprosium.

As also extensively reported in Noema, mining rare earth metals for clean technologies in the neighboring Swedish Arctic has only replicated the environmental destruction of the old iron mines for dirty industry.

Clean Energy And Overconsumption

In short, these instances are cases in point of where the copper and other key minerals hit the road on the way to a green economy. How to sort out this conundrum of good intentions at cross purposes?

One place to start is with a clear grasp of how the extraction of resources is the material foundation of mass consumer economies, just as food is the source of energy in the human body. Even technologies that can efficiently capture, store and transmit energy — or for that matter, rapidly process vast quantities of data on microchips — also entail expended energy and the attendant environmental damage to wrench from the Earth the requisite materials for their operation.

As the iconoclastic scientist Vaclav Smil put it with characteristic bluntness in an interview with Noema: “Let’s look at things as they are: There is no ‘economy’ — there is only energy conversion.”

Smil points out that a smartphone with the power of a room-size mainframe computer that fits in your hand may, in and of itself, constitute relative dematerialization, or the decrease of energy intensity. But when those devices are diffused globally into every hand, they constitute an even greater absolute use of materials than ever before. The same is true of the proliferation of electric vehicles, not only for their batteries, but for all the other materials from glass to steel to rubber that make up automobiles.

Even as the global population falls, notes Smil, consumption by a more prosperous smaller population is growing.

Whether we can conquer the climate challenge through clean technologies while not wrecking the ecosystem is, in the end, a matter of the level of consumption, so much of it wasted, as Smil contends, through phones thrown away for the newest model to large houses with empty rooms to EVs that only ever carry one passenger.

The climate challenge, Smil concluded in our conversation in Noema, can best be met by not only focusing on downstream emissions, but on upstream overconsumption. It is here that the dividing line between clean and green politics will fall.