Minerals such as graphite, lithium and cobalt could help meet growing demand for clean energy technologies.
The COVID-19 pandemic presents the greatest global development challenge ever faced in our lifetime. It has decimated economies and livelihoods. The impacts are multi-faceted and longer term than expected.
Climate change presents yet another stumbling block to achieving development outcomes as floods, droughts, cyclones, and other natural hazards continue to ravage Africa, reversing the gains made over decades.
For Africa that is already reeling in poverty, debt, crumbling health systems and a myriad of other problems, recovery from the dual crises of COVID-19 and climate change will prove to be an insurmountable task.
As is the case for Africa, industrialization, increased urbanization, and population growth are driving a sustained demand for minerals, metals and coal globally. According to the UN, the number of people living in cities will increase from 4.2 billion currently to 7.3 billion by the end of the century.
It is projected that Africa will have the world’s fastest urbanization rate by 2050, but perhaps the greatest demand for minerals is now driven by the quest for a green recovery. As we reboot our economies shattered by the pandemic it is important to adopt an economic development model that lessens environmental, climate and disaster risks and one where social and economic benefits trickle down to those at the bottom of the pyramid, the so called “inclusive, green and resilient recovery”.
At the core of a green recovery is the clean energy transition to drive economies, which involves uptake of technologies that reduce emissions such as wind and solar energy and less of fossil fuel-based technologies such as those derived from coal.
If not well managed, the ‘transitioning out’ of sectors of the economy such as coal could lead to massive losses of jobs and livelihoods for millions of workers and communities in fossil fuel- rich African countries already experiencing poverty and inequality such as South Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria, Angola, Chad, and Gabon, hence the notion of a justice transition. It can also put a damper on the excitement of new discoveries of fossil fuels in countries like Uganda, and Mozambique, hence dashing their hopes for long term economic prosperity. This could potentially leave such countries with a puzzle of dealing with stranded workers, communities and assets.
Minerals largely ignored
Whilst clean energy and decarbonizing international investment and finance seem to be dominating the development discourse, what is less hyped about is the minerals, including rare earth minerals, metals and construction materials needed for this to happen.
A new World Bank Group report (2020) reveals that the production of minerals such as graphite, lithium and cobalt, could increase by nearly 500% by 2050 to meet the growing demand for clean energy technologies.
It is estimated that over 3 billion tons of minerals and metals will be needed to deploy wind, solar and geothermal power, as well as energy storage, required for achieving a below 2°C future. The mineral intensity is such that even if the recycling rate for copper and aluminium is 100%, recycling and reuse will still not meet the steep demand.
Surprisingly, key African policy frameworks and programmes such as the Agenda 2063, Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), Africa Mining Vision and the more recent Africa Green Stimulus Programme (2021) are silent on the linkages between minerals, climate action and green recovery.
However, like any other mining or developmental activity, the minerals driving the clean energy transition come with social and environmental costs and paradoxically have their own carbon footprint, from extraction to end use. Land-based mining is moving into more remote, ecologically and biodiversity- sensitive areas such as wildlife areas and can cause deforestation, relocation of local communities, creation of mountains of often toxic waste and pollution of freshwater ecosystems.
Minerals for climate action
African countries are richly endowed with these ‘minerals for climate action’.
About 70 per cent of the world’s cobalt – used for batteries in mobile phones to electric cars - comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and a significant percentage from Madagascar. Countries such as Zimbabwe and Namibia have among the largest reserves of lithium globally.
As the global demand rises and the rush for these minerals by corporates from rich countries heightens, the creation of a level playing field is key so African countries and the local communities that are directly impacted by their extraction also benefit socially and economically from their own resources.
Such countries should not suffer from a “resource curse” and be pushed further into poverty and inequality, environmental degradation, health and safety risks, but should be assisted with the finance, technology and requisite capacity and social protection.
Mineral value addition and the capacity to negotiate win-win contracts with the private sector and deal with corruption are key if Africa is set to achieve long-term social and economic transformation from extractives.
Very few African countries export value-added mineral products. The Botswana case of forward integration in the diamond industry value chain by investing in diamond cutting and polishing and the creation of local jobs should serve as a learning experience for other African countries.
For instance, lithium-rich countries could explore the local manufacture of lithium-ion batteries to tap into local, regional and global electric vehicle and solar industry markets. At the same time, they can contribute to meeting their national targets stated in their Nationally Determined Contribution (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Digital green solutions
More sophisticated digital green solutions such as the use of robots for COVID-19 recovery and drones for delivery of medication adopted by Rwanda should demonstrate to other African countries that it is doable in a Least Developed Country context if there is sufficient political will.
Challenges that inhibit transformative and scalable social and economic gains from the extractive sector as stated in the Africa Mining Vision must still be addressed. These include large infrastructural deficits which constrain the movement of goods and services; weak local markets for mineral products which reflect the overall low level of Africa’s industrialization; technological deficiencies; low levels of research and development; and the large skill gaps existing in the continent
The clean energy transition should adhere to international standards for labour, health, safety, and human rights, particularly the rights of the child and women and social protection of vulnerable groups. The transition should also harness Africa’s youth dividend, considering the high rates of youth unemployment on the continent which creates fertile ground for violent extremism, civil conflict, and other social ills.
This article was originally published in the Africa Renewal magazine October 2021