Calls for sustainable and responsible mining for the clean energy transition

An important Special Report by the International Energy Association was released in May: The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions. Reflecting a mainstream view of the importance of the raw materials for clean technologies such as electric vehicles and energy storage, the IEA provides “ a wealth of detail on mineral demand prospects under different technology and policy assumptions” , and discusses the various countries which offer supply – including Canada. The main discussion is of policies regarding supply chains, especially concerning responsible and sustainable mining, concluding with six key recommendations, including co-ordination of the many international frameworks and initiatives in the area. The report briefly recognizes the Mining Association of Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) protocols as internationally significant, and as one of the first to require on-site verification of its standards. The Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) initiative was established in 2004, requiring member companies to “demonstrate leadership by reporting and independently verifying their performance in key environmental and social areas such as aboriginal and community engagement, biodiversity conservation, climate change, tailings management.”    

On May 5, the Mining Association of Canada updated one of its TSM protocols with the release a new Climate Change Protocol,  a major update to its 2013  Energy Use and GHG Emissions Management Protocol.  It is designed “to minimize the mining sector’s carbon footprint, while enhancing climate change disclosure and strengthening the sector’s ability to adapt to climate change.”  The Protocol is accompanied by a new Guide on Climate Change Adaptation for the Mining Sector,  intended for mine owners in Canada, but with global application. The Guide includes case studies of such mines as the Glencore Nickel mine in Sudbury, the notorious Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories, and the Suncor Millennium tailings pond remediation at its oil sands mine in Alberta.  The membership of MAC is a who’s who of Canadian mining and oil sands companies /  – including well-known companies such as ArcelorMittal, Barrick Gold, Glencore, Kinross,  Rio Tinto, Suncor, and Syncrude.  Other documentation, including other Frameworks and progress reports, are compiled at a dedicated Climate Change Initiatives and Innovations in the Mining Industry website.  

The demand for lithium, cobalt, nickel, and the other rare earth minerals needed for technological innovation has been embraced, not only by the mining industry, but in policy discussions –  recently, by Clean Energy Canada in its March 2021 report, The Next Frontier. The federal  ministry of Natural Resources Canada is also supportive, maintaining a Green Mining Innovation Initiative through CanmetMINING , and the government joined the U.S.-led Energy Resource Governance Initiative (ERGI) in 2019 to promote “secure and resilient supply chains for critical energy minerals.”

Alternative points of view have been pointing out the dangers inherent in the new “gold rush” mentality, since at least 2016 when Amnesty International released its 2016 expose of the use of child labour in the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most recently, in February 2021, Amnesty released Powering Change: Principles for Businesses and Governments in the Battery Value Chain, which sets out specific principles that governments and businesses should follow to avoid human rights abuses and environmental harm.  Other examples: MiningWatch Canada has posted their April 2021 webinar Green Energy, Green Mining, Green New Deal?,   which states: “The mining sector is working hard to take advantage of the climate crisis, painting mining as “green” because it supplies materials needed to support the “green” energy transition. But unless demand for both energy and materials are curtailed, environmental destruction and social conflicts will also continue to grow.”  MiningWatch Canada published  Turning Down the Heat: Can We Mine Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis? in 2020, reporting on a 2019 international conference which focused on the experience of frontline communities. Internationally, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre maintains a Transition Minerals tracker, with ongoing data and reports concerning human and labour rights in the mining of  “transition minerals”, and also compiles links to recent reports and articles. Two recent reports in 2021:  Recharge Responsibly: The Environmental and Social Footprint of Mining Cobalt, Lithium, and Nickel for Electric Vehicle Batteries (March 2021, Earthworks) and  A Material Transition: Exploring supply and demand solutions for renewable energy minerals  from the U.K. organization War on Want.  

A vision and action plan to make Canada’s heavy industries our low-carbon “Next Frontier”

Clean Energy Canada’s new report, The Next Frontier, sees Canada’s heavy industries—including steel, mining, cement, and wood—as the “Next Frontier” – already employing more Canadians than the oil and gas industry (300,000 in heavy industry compared to 237,000 in oil and gas), and poised to increase exports to the rest of the world. The report contends that Canadian heavy industries have a competitive advantage over their global peers, largely because our electricity sector is now 83% emissions-free. And according to the introduction, the time is now: “The production of certain metals and minerals could increase by up to nearly 500% over the next three decades to meet growing demand for clean technologies, according to the World Bank Group. Global steel demand, meanwhile, is projected to increase by up to 55%; Canadian steel and aluminum are among the world’s cleanest and could be even cleaner. Mining companies such as Vancouver based Teck are also global leaders in copper production, while Canada is the world’s fifth-largest nickel producer—both key metals for electrifying transportation. And Albertan companies like E3 Metals and Summit Nanotech are finding ways to recover lithium from oilsands wastewater.”

The Next Frontier , released on March 24, calls for an action plan to allow Canada to capitalize on the convergence of global market trends and climate imperatives.  The report Canadian strengths and provides more examples of existing companies. It concludes with an action plan to move towards this lower-carbon economy, including recommendations: to expand domestic markets through clean procurement policies for government infrastructure materials; to identify strategic directions such as “establishing a self-sufficient battery and critical minerals supply chain to build and grow domestic battery and clean technology manufacturing”;  investment and research and development in well-positioned industries; and establishing standards which will support a “Clean Canada” brand to the world.  

And regarding our largest and most important trading partner, the U.S., the bottom line message is: “If we want Biden’s “Buy American” approach to include an asterisk beside Canada, we must adapt to what this new administration wants more of (clean energy and low-carbon goods) and what it wants less of (fossil fuels and emissions-intensive products).”

Canada’s net zero future should include policies to support technology “wild cards”: report

Canada’s Net Zero Future: Finding our way in the global transition is a policy document released on February 8  by the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, the national research network created by Environment and Climate Change Canada in 2020. The report provides a simple definition of net zero: “shifting toward technologies and energy systems that do not produce emissions, and offsetting any remaining emissions by removing GHGs from the atmosphere and storing them permanently.” Based on technical analysis by Navius Research which examined more than 60 modelling scenarios, the report is announced as “the first in-depth scenario report to explore how Canada can reach net zero emissions by 2050”. It concludes that the goal is doable, using two pathways: “safe bets” and “wild cards”.

Most impact will be made by “Safe bets—commercially available, cost-effective, existing technologies like electric vehicles, heat pumps, and smart grids” which they estimate can generate at least two-thirds of the emission reductions required. In the longer-term, to reach the 2050 target, the authors rely on results from unproven “wild cards”— “high-risk, high reward technologies like advanced biofuels, zero-emissions hydrogen, and some types of engineered negative emission technologies that are not yet commercially available”.   The conclusion: “To scale up safe bets, governments should continue to steadily increase the stringency of policies such as carbon pricing and flexible regulations. To advance wild cards, governments should spread their bets—supporting a portfolio of emerging technologies, without delaying progress on existing smart bet solutions over the next crucial decade.”

Of the four formal Recommendations, #4 is “Governments should work to ensure that the transition to net zero is fair and inclusive”.  ….. “It is vital that governments understand the full range of implications the transition will have on all of Canada’s regions, sectors, workers, communities, and income groups. This is necessary to ensure that policies successfully address adverse impacts and work to lift up groups who have historically been left behind, instead of exacerbating those inequalities. This will require direct engagement with all of those groups.”

The lead author of the report is Jason Dion, Mitigation Research Director at the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, but the report is a “consensus document” involving many advisors who compose its Mitigation Expert Panel Working Group, as well as expert external reviewers.  Two accompanying blogs condense the message in “What puts the “net” in net zero?” (regarding three means of negative emissions) and “Net zero is compatible with economic growth if we do it right” (emphasizing the importance of likelihood of GDP growth through the recommended policies.) 

Related Recent reports:

The Carbontech Innovation System in Canada released in December 2020 by the Pembina Institute, along with CMC Research Institutes and the Alberta Clean Technology Industry Alliance. It reviews and evaluates Canada’s position in the global carbon capture and utilization marketplace.

Accelerating Decarbonization of the United States Energy System published by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in February 2021. Written by a committee of experts, this is a policy blueprint for the U.S. to decarbonize its transportation, electricity, buildings, and industrial sectors, in order to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. See a summary here.

Can Technology solve Climate Change? two brief essays debating the pro and con arguments, by Adam Dorr and Richard Heinberg.

Decarbonization requires focus on sector-specific policies and investments: new report

Pathways to net zero: A decision support tool  was released on January 25, directed at policy makers and investors. The report provides a broad-stroke analysis of all sectors of the Canadian economy, summarized in Assessment Tables which identify processes within each sector, classified as “credible”  “capable” or  “compelling” as pathways to net-zero. Priority areas are identified and highlighted in the final recommendation that “Canada needs a paradigm shift from trying to do a little bit of everything to reduce emissions to accelerating real change by strategically focusing on building out key regional and sector-specific pathways to net zero. …This means prioritizing decarbonizing electricity, accelerating electric vehicle deployment and performing mass building retrofits, since these sectors are in the more mature ‘diffusion’ phase of their decarbonization transition.”  

The report also acknowledges the cross-cutting issues of carbon taxes, energy efficiency, and technologies such as carbon capture and storage. Future reports are promised to provide deeper assessments of the additional sectors of hydrogen and biofuel energy; plastics; iron and steel; aluminum; mass transit.  

Pathways to net zero: A decision support tool  is written by lead author Professor James Meadowcroft of Carleton University, and published by the Transition Accelerator in Calgary. The Transition Accelerator launched in summer of 2019 with Building Pathways to a Sustainable Future, a report which summarizes the organization’s goals and its “ transition approach”: partly defined as an examination of “opportunities to transform the large-scale societal systems or sectors which give rise to our emissions. This requires understanding how these systems operate, the stage of transition achieved in specific systems (‘emergence’, ‘diffusion’ or ‘system reconfiguration’), and the non-climate-related problems and disruptive currents influencing their evolution.”  

Other reports to date are compiled here and have focused largely on hydrogen energy and transportation issues.

Green Hydrogen in Canada – Alberta sets a goal of 2040 for exports

Clean Energy Canada released a new report on hydrogen as a clean energy source, providing a history of policy and development in Canada and around the world, and a call to action.  A New Hope states that “.. Canada is among a small group of countries with the highest potential for exporting clean hydrogen, thanks to a clean power system (82% of Canada’s electricity grid is already non-emitting) and plenty of access to water (required for electrolysis). But the time to act is now. Already, 18 economies comprising more than 75% of global GDP are developing and rolling out hydrogen strategies. Some, like the EU and South Korea, have dedicated post-pandemic recovery funds to make it happen. …. Germany’s priming of the hydrogen market with a €9-billion ($13.7-billion) strategy could lead to a snowballing competitive market—and increasingly cheaper clean hydrogen.”  The EU Hydrogen Strategy for a climate neutral Europe was released in July 2020.

Green, Blue or Grey? Colour-coded hydrogen holds keys to Canada’s energy transition” appeared in The National Observer in August, and gives an excellent overview of the policy landscape for hydrogen in Canada – the perspective of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association and the Canadian government, which has promised a Hydrogen Strategy – but no date is set. The article cites a very thorough consultant’s report circulating amongst government officials: 2019 Hydrogen Pathways : Enabling a Clean Growth Future for Canadians .

The Pembina Institute had also published Hydrogen on the path to net-zero emissions Costs and climate benefits (July), a 6-page overview of  the terminology (blue, green or grey hydrogen?),  the production process, transportation and storage, and its many possible applications across industry, transportation, power and buildings sectors.

Alberta seems to be heeding the call:  in September, the Alberta Industrial Heartland Hydrogen Task force released Towards Net-Zero Energy Systems In Canada: A Key Role For Hydrogen, and on October 6, the Alberta government released its Natural Gas Vision and Strategy, part of its Recovery Plan for petrochemicals, LNG production ,  plastics recycling, and hydrogen.   Along with the October 6 press release, the Plan states “…. Alberta is already a leader in hydrogen production and has strong carbon capture and storage infrastructure in place. Combined with a number of projects being built across the province, Alberta has the potential to be a strong global competitor through the creation of a hydrogen economy.”  The goals stated in the Plan: 1. “Large-scale hydrogen production with carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) and deployment in various commercial applications across the provincial economy by 2030; and 2.  Exports of clean hydrogen and hydrogen-derived products to jurisdictions across Canada, North America, and globally are in place by 2040.”