Just transition

New research that we are embarking on this year is on just transition. Some of the communities that we work with are campaigning for the #righttosayno to mining and in doing so are resisting state and corporate intimidation, bribes and corruption in attempts to forge ahead with projects without prior informed consent. Instead, many of these communities want to continue doing what they have for generations: to live as subsistence farmers and as fisherpeople, often as well as developing tourism as an additional source of income, as well as other alternatives.

To build on our work supporting communities with their demands for corporate accountability, #therighttosayno, and alongside highlighting the environmental destruction, human rights violations and climate change caused by large-scale mining, we’ve become increasingly aware of two questions: ‘if not mining, what?’ and ‘if not mining, how?’

As it stands, the deadly burden of our changing climate is disproportionately being borne by those who are already most marginalized by intersecting systems of oppression, injustice and dispossession. People from the Global South, the indigenous North, and their allies have fought hard for the recognition of a climate justice narrative that centres these unjust and historically rooted social relations at the heart of climate change.

The same relations that are throwing the climate into chaos, and have systematically marginalized the Majority World, have also established a destructive way of relating to common natural goods and the people who live near them.

Whether copper or gold, coal or guano, bananas or African palm, the ‘extractivist’ model has grown and adapted since its inception on a global scale, arguably five centuries ago.

The climate justice frame transforms the inevitable decarbonisation of the global economy into one of the greatest opportunities to bring us closer to a more socially and ecologically just world.

However, dominant narratives of a ‘just transition’ often fail to grapple with a serious and concerning possibility: that the extraction of coal, oil and gas will be replaced with increasing demands for iron, silver, copper, cobalt, rare earths and lithium, to name but a few of the minerals and metals identified as essential in the transition. (Read how we are taking these issues into schools with our PhoneCycle game.)

If our current fossil-fuel dependent society is to be replaced with one that uses solely renewable energy, vast quantities of the minerals and metals necessary in developing this infrastructure will have to be sourced.

Indeed, some studies indicate that the total volume of extracted material, on an annual basis, in a decarbonised world could be much greater than it currently is in our fossil-fuel dependent reality.

There are already significant concerns regarding the extraction of lithium in the salt flats of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. There is a growing movement to resist commercial-scale deep sea mining projects (which have been framed as contributing to the transition). Minerals that are deeply implicated in conflict, such as cobalt, have also drawn critical attention, and the rising price of copper is reigniting the ambitions of British mining companies in previously dormant projects throughout the Andes.

The research will look at levels of projected demand, the environmental and social conflict impacts of mineral and metal extraction tied to the transition, as well as community concerns, and will examine how the mining industry is responding to this shift in expectation and demand. The research will be developed over the coming months.