Campaigners have called on the Scottish Government to develop a strategy to limit the demand for materials required in the transition away from fossil fuels. This comes as a new report has been released which highlights the widespread human rights abuses and environmental destruction being caused by mining for the minerals that are being used in the energy transition in Scotland. 

The report ‘Unearthing Injustice’, commissioned by Friends of the Earth Scotland, looks at the harm being caused by lithium mining, which is used in batteries in electric vehicles, and steel, which is needed for wind turbines. The demand for these materials is going to increase significantly with the growing energy transition.  

The risk that serious and extensive harm will be done through material extraction is currently being ignored by Scottish policy makers. This lack of concern about material extraction also jeopardises Scotland’s ability to meet its climate commitments. Uncertain supply of materials needed to build the energy infrastructure means that there is a risk that Scotland’s renewable energy system cannot be delivered as required in Scottish Government plans. 

The report found: 

  • The social and environmental impacts of mining of transition minerals are extensive, from human rights abuses and unsafe labour conditions to carbon intensive extraction techniques, water pollution and biodiversity loss 
  • Demand for lithium is expected to increase by between 13 and 50 times from 2020 to 2040 
  • There could be lithium shortages as soon as 2025, with only 1% of lithium recycled currently 
  • In Scotland, 82% of lithium consumption is for electric vehicle batteries 
  • There is 1 million tonnes of steel in Scotland’s current offshore wind developments – this will increase to 14 million tonnes by 2050 
  • Steel production generates 7% of global carbon emissions 
  • The only way to limit the impact of these materials to sustainable levels is to minimise the need for them 

Reducing the demand for lithium and steel can be achieved through measures like changing transport systems so we need fewer cars, and improving reuse and recycling of materials so they can be used more than once. If Scotland’s fossil fuel cars are replaced with more buses, lithium requirements could be reduced by 32% compared with like for like replacement. 

The Scottish Government’s draft Energy Strategy and Just Transition Plan includes plans for decarbonising Scotland’s transport network but fails to consider where the lithium needed to do this will come from.  

Mining is associated with conflict because exploitation of mineral resources impacts upon nearby communities. It is an extremely energy intensive process and generates large amounts of toxic waste. Mining companies are failing to meet their minimum responsibilities to protect human life and the environment, leading to extensive and serious impacts globally.  

The report found that lithium used in Scottish products is most likely to come from Chile and Australia, where Indigenous communities have come into conflict with mining companies. Steel used in Scottish wind turbines is likely to include significant amounts of iron ore from Brazil, where there have been two major tailing dam disasters in the last decade. A 2019 disaster in Minas Gerais killed at least 244 people. 

Kim Pratt, circular economy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland, said:  

“Transitioning away from fossil fuels is vital for a livable planet, but we must not create another crisis in doing so. Materials like lithium and steel are essential for renewables and electric vehicles, but we can’t ignore the serious harm being caused by their extraction. We want to see a Scotland which takes no more resources than it needs and, when resources are taken, it’s done in a way which isn’t harming communities and nature anywhere in the world. 

“The overall demand for materials must be reduced by moving Scotland to a circular economy, where materials are reused and recycled rather than being thrown away after one use, and by focusing on public services rather than private ones. We simply cannot replace all our current petrol and diesel cars with electric cars like for like – we need better public transport, so we don’t need as many cars overall. Scotland could take advantage of the large supply of scrap steel available from within our borders and our low carbon electricity grid to produce some of the greenest steel in the world. 

“The Scottish Government urgently needs to create a resource justice strategy to make sure Scotland’s material use is fair and sustainable as soon as possible.” 

Andy Whitmore, co-chair of London Mining Network, said:  

“From the deserts of the Atacama to coke ovens in Nova Scotia, our research exposes the human rights and environmental concerns that lie behind the supply chains for minerals associated with the energy transition. As governments focus on perceived scarcity there is not enough attention being paid to addressing those abuses, which a commitment to globally fair transition should entail. Proper supply chain due diligence would protect the environment, the rights of workers and of impacted communities, including free, prior and informed consent for Indigenous peoples.” 

Jake Simms, co-author of the report, said: 

“Our research demonstrates the urgent need for a resource justice strategy that delivers justice to workers and communities globally impacted by mineral extraction, processing and manufacturing. A resource justice strategy must both drive supply chain justice and minimise mineral demand. Delivering supply chain justice means establishing a publicly owned energy company, enforcing strict due diligence standards and a reparative trade policy that ensures communities impacted by extraction are fairly compensated.”