‘Green mining’: a myth that could cost us the Earth

Feeding Europe’s digital and green transition with runaway mining without changing the way we use natural resources could cost us the Earth. A new report urges the EU to slash resource consumption by two-thirds, writes Roberta Arbinolo.

The report, published by the European Environmental Bureau and Friends of the Earth Europe, looks into the environmental and social impacts of mining, and recommends to address the rising need for metals and minerals not by digging out more resources, but by rethinking the way we use them in the first place. A shift the Green Deal should embrace, instead of ignore.

Feeding Europe’s Bigfoot

EU countries are already extracting and consuming a dangerous proportion of the world’s limited resources. The EU makes up only 6% of the world’s population, yet consumes 25-30% of metals produced globally. Our material footprint, calculated as the total consumption of fossil fuels, biomass, metals and non-metallic minerals, is currently as big as 14.5 tonnes per capita, well over the global average.

If Europe’s current extraction and consumption of natural resources is far from sustainable, future trends are not encouraging. Projections suggest that material and energy consumption may double by 2060, with the twin green and digital transitions boosting the demand for yet more metals and minerals.

The necessary shift to wind and solar technologies, electricity systems, and batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage is highly materials-intensive. For instance, it is estimated that electric vehicles use four times as much copper as fossil fuel cars, and under a ‘high demand’ decarbonisation scenario, batteries for electric vehicles and renewables are predicted to drive up lithium demand by almost 6000% by 2050.

At the same time, the rapidly growing digital sector is another key driver of our increasing demand for metals: Europeans own five times as many digital devices as the average person in the Global South, and twice the global average, with rampant consumerism driving this trend.

Footing the bill

Europe’s extractivism comes at a high costs for impacted communities and the natural world. On the environmental side, mining causes natural habitat degradation and biodiversity loss, soil contamination and erosion, particulate emissions and heavy metals pollution, and the contamination of groundwater, wetlands, coral reefs and other aquatic systems, including the deep seas.

On the social side, indigenous and local communities are too often footing the bill for Europe’s appetite for natural resources. Not only are they the ones who endure the consequences of the environmental impacts of mining, they also face forced displacement and the use of violence, intimidation, criminalisation, stigmatisation, extrajudicial killings and wrongful imprisonment.

More environmental defenders are killed for opposing mining than opposing any other industry: 50 of the 212 green activists killed worldwide in 2019 were campaigning to stop mining projects.

Degrading and illegal labour conditions such as forced labour, child labour, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, unsanitary conditions and general safety violations that can lead to injury, illnesses, disability or death are also too often the norm, while poor governance and a lack of transparency make it hard to hold mining companies accountable.

It’s coming home

Although most of Europe’s mining activities are still run – and have impacts – in the Global South, the mining rush is now coming home: hoping to secure the future supply chain, reduce dependency on third countries and promote ‘responsible’ sourcing of metals and minerals, the European Commission released last year its action plan on critical raw materials, which involves bringing back the sort of extraction that EU countries have for decades been happy to outsource.

As a result, European communities from Portugal and Spain to Finland and Hungary are now mobilising against new mining projects, demanding the right to self-determination, the right to remain in their territories without worrying about displacement, and the right to clean water, air and soil.

Beyond growth, beyond greenwashing

While mining corporations and governments have strived to create the conditions for more mining in Europe and beyond by convincing the public that mining can be “green”, campaigners call this out as mere greenwashing.

Rather than trying to make mining look sustainable, the report authors argue, the EU should rethink its production and consumption patterns in the first place, and address the raising demand for natural resources upstream – starting by setting a material footprint reduction target of 65%. In these terms, the green transition could be an opportunity to tackle the root causes of the broader climate and environmental crises: an economic system which drives overconsumption and social inequities in all sectors.

Diego Marin, Associate Policy Officer for Environmental Justice at the European Environmental Bureau told META:

“Recognising that we cannot mine our way out of the climate crisis means that we need to stop the growth frenzy. It is as if current policies were driving a bus toward a cliff edge and the passengers were arguing about whether the bus should run on electricity or fossil fuels, when the more urgent question we should be asking is how we can stop the bus from plummeting down the cliff in the first place.”

Stéphane Arditi, Director of Policy Integration and Circular Economy at the EEB, added: 

“A truly green transition should not just be about changing the way we produce energy: it must also be about sufficiency, saving energy, making products last longer and keep the value of the resources we are already using. It’s time to rethink the way we create, use and dispose everyday products.”

Luckily, from recycling to urban mining, solutions already exist and can be upscaled.

“Recycling is not a silver bullet, but it is part of the strategy, and it can be improved: we should refrain from extracting more virgin materials until recycling potential remains untapped”, added Arditi.

Yet, European Green Deal plans seem to hold the course of ‘consumption as usual’, while the EU’s Critical Raw Material Strategy fails to address the destructive impacts of mining on people and nature.

Meadhbh Bolger, Resource Justice Campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe told META:

“The EU has a history of passing weak laws which fail again and again to reduce the amount of natural resources we consume, putting the remaining parts of the natural world and many communities under immense stress. The reason is simple: the laws are all predicated on economic growth, which is not compatible with a sustainable future. The EU needs to wake up and set a headline target to cut material use so that the European Green Deal doesn’t become another footnote in the history of the destruction of the planet.”

The EEB and Friends of the Earth Europe launched the report at an online public event, with a broad spectrum of sectors and expertise present – from civil society and EU and national policy makers, to researchers and industry. The recording can be watched here.