Somewhere, there is always an end. In the rush to the abyss, few find compassion. It is a difficult and divided world. Earlier this year, as drought ravaged states, Zakhiku an ancient city founded around 1,800 BC by the Old Babylonian empire that ruled Mesopotamia between the 19th and 15th centuries BC, became visible at the bottom of an empty dam.
At Sharm el-Sheikh, conservationists and indigenous people beseeched world leaders to protect the biodiversity of the earth to be able to forestall the most disastrous consequences of the climate catastrophe. Today, eighty per cent of the world’s neodymium comes from the Baotou mine. Neodymium, when combined with iron and boron, makes the strongest magnets that are important for wind turbines and motors in electric vehicles.
But in the midst of the global energy transition, every effort to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 may slow down, as the supply of copper fails to match demand amid growing consumption of solar panels, EVs, and renewable energy technologies. Building all three types of electric vehicles requires 2.5 times as much copper as internal combustion engines. Solar farms consume two times more copper per megawatt of installed capacity than coal-powered or gas electricity generation plants, and for offshore wind, the quantity is five times larger. U.S. Geological Survey data (2019) suggest that global copper reserves are estimated at 830 million metric tons, with annual demand being 28 million metric tons.
At this time, 733 million people on earth have no access to electricity. This means that developing economies that try to enhance electric grids and energy generation have to compete with richer economies for copper. The World Bank report, “Minerals for Climate Action: The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition” (2020) champions the sustainable extraction and processing of minerals and metals by minimizing the social, environmental, and climate footprint throughout the value chain of those materials by scaling up technical cooperation and investments in resource-rich countries.
It is indisputable that any exploitation of the Mes Aynak copper mine next to the destroyed ancient Buddha statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan for a quick profit, would most likely harm the environment. Water aquifers near the mine that supplies water to Kabul would be at risk of severe contamination. This could affect food security and the livelihoods of local farming communities. Apart from Lithium, Afghanistan sits on top of large deposits of copper, nickel, cobalt and rare earth elements. Countries with processing capacity are already stepping up downstream investment to maintain control over these and other minerals. Supply chains for neodymium for wind turbines, lithium, and cobalt for batteries and copper for everything else need to be re-examined.
In Kabul, the new government that assumed power in 2021, intends to develop the mineral deposits many of which are key for the world’s energy transition. A 2022 Brookings Institute report on Afghanistan’s lithium sector outlines many geopolitical interests to gain access to bountiful sources of minerals critical to ongoing decarbonisation efforts for large-capacity batteries for electric vehicles, and clean energy storage systems. The demands for materials, especially rare earths mean more mining.
Other important mines include, Rainbow Rare Earths in Burundi, and the Mkango mine in Malawi. In the Atacama Desert, robots are now being used in remote mines and at great depths below the surface – which means mining under extreme conditions of heat and pressure. In some locations, old mines have become toxic lakes. There are two basic methods for mining rare earth elements. Both release toxic chemicals into the environment. The first includes topsoil removal and building a leaching pond. The second method involves drilling and pumping chemicals into the earth, which also creates a leaching pond. For each ton of rare earth produced, the mining process yields 13kg of dust, 75 cubic meters of wastewater, 9,600-12,000 cubic meters of waste gas, and one ton of radioactive remains. Rare earth ores are often mixed with radioactive uranium and thorium. But something cannot come from nothing.
The sea is now 1.2C warmer than 30 years ago. A 2016 marine heatwave along Chile’s southern coast caused huge algae blooms that wiped out fish farms and cost the aquaculture industry about $800 million. The waters west of Sicily reached temperatures in 2022 that exceeded those on record since 1982.
Measurements taken by European Space Agency satellites show that, from June through September, the seas off north Africa and southwest Europe were 2 to 5 degrees Celsius above the 1985-2005 daily averages. By September, sponges, sea-stars, fish, and molluscs were dying en masse off France and Spain, and corals bleached to bone white. Mediterranean fisheries are valued at over $3.4 billion, according to a 2022 IPCC report, with about 76,000 vessels trawling the cerulean waters for anchovy, Bluefin tuna, and red mullet.
But as far back as 1898, 20 km off the Northern coast of Tunisia, fishermen documented the appearance of blue crabs from the Indo-Pacific that most likely arrived in ship ballast water. Marine heatwaves over the last decade have caused the population of these blue crabs to mushroom. Thriving at water temperatures around 30C, the pincered crustacean now devours everything around it.