Copper mining in a climate emergency

Sebastian Ordoñez Muñoz reports on the red metal mining at the heart of a new wave of colonial expansion in Latin America

May 21, 2019 · 8 min read
Brumadinho. Photo by Diego Baravelli, via Wikimedia Commons

The climate emergency is a consequence of a model of extraction of natural resources that has put profit before either people or the planet. Tackling it requires a deep transformation of our current neo-liberal economic model that is built on unsustainable and inequitable growth on a finite planet.

Resource extraction is responsible for 50% of global emissions with minerals and metal mining responsible for 20% of emissions even before the manufacturing stage – which means that the mining corporations sit right at the heart of the climate crisis. But it’s not only the violence of climate change that this sector is fuelling. Behind each tonne of extraction is a story of contamination and depletion of water, destruction of habitats, poisoning of land, environmental conflicts and widespread human rights violations.

These entrenched economic interests who are responsible for this crisis don’t hold the solutions to the challenges and threats we face, at the heart of which is the question of how we produce and who consumes energy and technology, and who will pay the price for the devastating impacts of the new wave of extraction being planned.

Copper is a metallic component crucial to two new developments: the transition towards an energy system powered by 100% renewable sources, and the so-called ‘4th industrial revolution’ of computer technology – big data and artificial intelligence. But as Information and Communication Technology (ICT) industries boom, and as the global North declares a climate emergency, how can we reconcile the impending need to avert the climate crisis and build a high-tech future, without entering a new violent colonial era of expanding commodity frontiers and intensifying corporate crimes?

These industries are inextricably linked. The electronics industry is one of the fastest growing global industries with an expected yearly growth of 9.6% between 2017 and 2022. Likewise, scientific projections show that by 2050, 20-30% of global copper production will be used in the renewable energy sector. In both these scenarios, the demand for copper is set to increase exponentially.

Despite the clear evidence that extracted resources of the planet are way beyond sustainable levels. The levels of extraction are set to double and in the case of metals increase by 150%. Proponents of eco-efficiency claim that techno-fixes and ‘the market’ will cough up the only solutions to climate emergency. But blind faith in the growth of innovation and technology alone still fails to address the inherent contradiction of infinite growth on a finite planet. A business-as-usual scenario will see reserves of ‘critical minerals’ deplete, with demand quickly outstripping supply, leading to a violent scramble for resources that will be for the short-term benefit of a few. In the unimaginable fallout from this bleak scenario, it is once again the people of colour in the global South who will undoubtedly foot the bill first.

Mining: harmful by default

On January 25th, a tailings dam at the Córrego do Feijão iron ore mine in Brumadinho, Brazil, collapsed, unleashing 12 million cubic metres of toxic mining-waste. It left a trail of devastation in its wake. As of 7 May 2019, 237 people are confirmed dead, and 33 missing. This was not a sudden tragedy, but a corporate crime foretold, emblematic of an extractive model geared to sacrifice communities for the sake of greater earnings. Only 90km from Brumadinho, less than four years ago, another tailings dam burst at the Samarco mine killing 19 people, destroying 600km of river basin and affecting 1 million inhabitants. In both instances, one corporate multinational was the culprit, Vale.

Tailings dams are enormous infrastructures built to store mining waste. But the frequency of their breaches and failures is alerting even the most vociferous advocates of the mining industry to the dangers of unfettered resource extraction. UK-listed Antofagasta PLC, which has its AGM tomorrow, stores its toxic mining waste in the El Mauro dam: one of the largest tailings dams in Latin America, located just 10km from the town of Caimanes. This frontline community’s decades-old struggle has become a symbol of resistance in the continent.

Living in the shadow of a 300-metre-high dam with a capacity to contain 1.7 billion tonnes of waste in an area with regular seismic activity, means living in constant existential danger. That is how the Supreme Court of Chile described the situation of Caimanes in 2014, ordering the company to implement an emergency and protection plan in case of collapse. Yet, on the two occasions that the construction of the El Mauro dam could have been stopped, well-documented cases of co-optation of the community lawyers led to the abandonment of the court orders.

Interestingly, this year’s global climate talks (Conference of the Parties – COP25) will take place in Chile, home to the world’s largest copper reserves and 80% of South America’s glaciers. Under the Pinochet dictatorship, the Andean country became a laboratory for global neoliberalism, with its policies of de-regulation, unfettered corporate power and attacks on the rights of communities, nowhere more so than for the mining industry. It is not surprising, therefore, that this year’s COP has as its focus the world’s oceans: the ‘Blue COP’, whilst at the same time Chile’s president Piñera on a visit to China with Antofagasta, continues to promote the sale of copper and boast about the expansion of plans of the Los Pelambres mine.

What should we really be discussing at Climate talks?  

Fundamentally, unless the global mining industry and the global ICT industry are urgently regulated, and unless the proposals for a Green New Deal currently gaining traction in the US and UK tackle the growth-at-all-costs model for development, disasters like the one in Brumadinho will only increase in frequency, intensity and impact.

Pressure from the international community has led to some ICT companies having to open-up their supply chains, and adopt some regulations in the US and Europe, making it mandatory to meet international responsible sourcing standards. Yet, these standards fall far-short of ensuring human rights. Most of the standards apply only to ‘conflict’ minerals like the tungsten, tantalum and gold. Furthermore, the opacity of mining supply chains makes it virtually impossible to determine exactly where copper extracted at a given mine is going, or how much of it ends up in the ICT products we use every day.

Another worrying trend is emerging as British interest in Latin American copper deposits rises: the greenwashing of new copper projects. Mining giants like BHP and Anglo American claim that their mines will be key contributors to the renewable energy transition by supplying copper for electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels. These claims are deceptively simplistic; the reality is that infrastructure and construction materials are projected to remain the primary drivers of copper demand throughout this century, not renewable energy technologies per se.

Critically, this greenwashing allows corporations and complicit governments to maintain a business-as-usual approach, propping up our broken economic model by promoting extractivism as the model to address the crises it created in the first place. The City of London, a global hub for the extractive economy, has a massive stake in business-as-usual.

We urgently need to confront an endemic culture of corporate impunity that renders ecosystems and those that rely on them disposable. We need to also uphold the justice transitions already taking place in the communities resisting mining, from Brazil to Chile, where people are asserting their democratic right to say no to an extractive model that poses tremendous risks to their livelihoods. It is these local initiatives that lay the foundations for the type of bold transition needed, one based on equity, sufficiency and justice.

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