Africa is going to foot the bill for the energy transition of the global north, according to social collectives that say the current system regarding the extraction of so-called critical minerals, such as cobalt, lithium, nickel or zinc, considered key to this transition, benefits mainly companies and countries in the developed world, while triggering a negative ecological impact that will only intensify in the coming decades. “If we don’t change the way the industry’s profits are distributed, Africa will get the crumbs from these minerals and will remain in poverty,” says Brice Mackosso, a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which met this week in Dakar.
Lake Nzilo, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is a favorite recreation and fishing spot for the inhabitants of Kolwezi. However, its waters have an increasingly high concentration of arsenic and other harmful chemicals due to its proximity to several cobalt mines, according to researcher Zélie Pelletier Hochart from the NGO Global Witness. The communities located near these mines suffer a higher rate of cirrhosis, miscarriages, congenital malformations, and cancer, along with other diseases, and, despite living so close to the extracted wealth, they remain in misery. In her thesis The Dark Side of The Energetic Transition: Cobalt Mining, dated 2021, Hochart notes, “The poverty that pushes households into mining is exacerbated by the very industry that fails to create wealth locally.”
The World Bank estimates that demand for critical minerals such as cobalt, copper, lithium and zinc will increase 500% by 2050
The DRC exports about 70% of the world’s cobalt, according to the United Nations. Along with copper, lithium, zinc, manganese, nickel and chromium, it forms part of the family of so-called critical minerals that are key to the construction of electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels and batteries. In other words, they form the material basis of the so-called energy transition that will enable the world to abandon fossil fuels and move towards other more sustainable sources, thereby slowing down global warming. These minerals are not particularly common and the majority of their reserves can be found in Africa, Latin America, Australia and Southeast Asia. However, the World Bank estimates that demand will increase by 500% by 2050.
“Most of these minerals are on land that belongs to indigenous communities who depend on it for their survival,” says Solange Bandiaky-Badji, director of the Rights and Resources Group (RRG). “Extractive activity has an enormous negative impact, such as water pollution and deforestation. The Congo River Valley is the world’s second lung after the Amazon and we see more and more investors coming in from China, the Gulf countries, South Africa and India, who are attracted by the mining. It is urgent to adopt clear mechanisms that set environmental limits to this industry, ensuring that the benefits are shared equitably and that the decisions of local communities are respected.”
In order to move in this direction, representatives of more than 50 countries met this week in Dakar as part of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), almost all from the global south with the notable absence of a large number of European powers as well as economic giants such as the U.S. and China. The EITI is a global initiative launched in 2003, bringing together governments, companies and civil society to push for financial transparency and performance protocols for the global extractive industry. “We have approved a new standard that puts even more emphasis on the need to report on environmental impact, and for the data to reach the public,” says Vanessa Cueto La Rosa, Latin American civil society representative at the EITI. “But we also want to see that the social benefits have an impact on women, who are often the worst affected by this industry.”
In the Republic of Congo, only 27% of oil profits stay in the country, the rest goes abroad and mainly to extractive companies”Brice Mackosso, member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI)
The 2023 EITI Standard, adopted this week in Dakar, sets out transparency requirements to address anti-corruption, gender, social and environmental issues, revenue collection and energy transition. But the question is whether companies and governments will provide all the necessary information and respect what has been agreed. “We have come a long way, but there is still a long way to go,” explains Diana Kaissy from Lebanon, EITI’s Middle East and North Africa representative. In Bandiaky-Badji’s view, more forceful policies should be adopted, including sanctions. “Environmental activists are being killed all over the world, especially in Brazil and Colombia, and that is unacceptable,” she says. “Environmental crimes must be prosecuted.”
As recognized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), “the minerals at the root of the clean energy transition have a social and environmental cost and, paradoxically, their own carbon footprint from extraction to final use. The Kolwezi cobalt mines, for example, use diesel engines for much of the process. Mining areas are almost always located in remote, ecologically sensitive areas, and the risk of deforestation, population displacement and generation of discharges into ecosystems is very high.”
“It’s a huge environmental cost, but the most painful thing is how little it gives back to Africa,” says Mackosso. “Before we intensify the production of critical minerals, we have to change the model. After a study carried out in the Republic of Congo, we discovered that only 27% of the oil profits stay in the country. The rest goes abroad and mainly to extractive companies. Are we going to continue like this, allowing others to take our wealth? That is the big question. And finally, what energy transition are we going to have in Africa if 60% of the population has no access to electricity now? In the end, we are going to be left with very little through footing the environmental bill that allows others to move to a greener model. I don’t get it.”
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