Valuing water in the transition to net-zero emissions

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By Dr Nana Osei Bonsu, Research Fellow
Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business, University of Birmingham

Tackling climate change via reducing greenhouse gas emissions will take a massive, global transition to cleaner energy technologies, such as electric vehicles, renewables like wind and solar power, and more efficient energy storage. But all of these will require mining more critical raw minerals, which is already causing water-stress and shortages within many mining communities and will inevitably worsen over the coming decades.

For example, Chile contains the world’s largest lithium reserves – a mineral that is essential for the batteries used by many clean energy technologies. But according to a report by McKinsey & Company, the country is already experiencing droughts and increased water extraction from mining in areas that are some of the driest on Earth. Eighty per cent of Chile’s copper production is located in highly water-stressed and arid areas and is projected to increase by 100 per cent by 2040.

In cobalt-rich mining countries, too, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, there are structural problems linked to water pollution that all stem from mining critical raw minerals required for technologies battling the global climate crisis (cobalt is another mineral essential for making batteries).

There’s good reason to pause and reimagine what responsible business means when it comes to transitioning to net-zero emissions and the effect it will have on water scarcity in mineral-rich countries. Indeed, with mining of critical raw minerals projected to increase by nearly 500% by 2050 to meet the growing demand for lithium-ion batteries that are the heartbeat of the clean energy technologies transition and achieve a below 2°C future, will it even be possible to improve water security in such countries?

Given that the value of water is much more than its price, and with less than ten years left for the international community to achieve the United Nations’ 17 Global Goals (particularly goals 6 and 13: clean water for all and climate action), businesses cannot afford the same business-as-usual practices, knowingly sourcing critical raw minerals that impact the water security of vulnerable communities – even if it is to help address the global climate emergency.

Therefore, it’s crucial that global, national and local policymakers and researchers recognise such challenges and step in to reshape the relationship between mining, water scarcity and climate change. This is undeniably long overdue, but not too late – especially with the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November. Our world leaders could help raise awareness and begin to create a water security plan for climate change and mining that leaves no one behind by 2030. But it will need effective collaboration and discussions with mineral-rich countries to take the robust decisions required to make it work.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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