Bridging the Decarbonisation Divide

By María Santos Alfageme

Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our times, as well as a threat to be solved jointly. The mission to decarbonise our economies requires multilateral, multi-sectoral collaboration and a transformation of humankind’s relationship with nature and business. In the World Science Day for Peace and Development, and while international negotiations are taking place in Sharm El Sheikh, it is worth remembering that a climate-safe future is an indispensable condition for peace. 

What does transport decarbonisation have to do with peace? 

Transport accounts for one-fifth of global CO2 emissions, and, according to the ITF’s Transport Outlook 2021, these are expected to rise by almost 20% by 2050. With the solutions given today, decarbonising transport will come hand in hand with intensive mineral extraction. In fact, it already does. According to the IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2022, supply chains for some technologies the transport sector has a very high reliance on to decarbonise, such as electrolysers and batteries, are expanding rapidly. This projection will likely have huge impacts on planetary security and, therefore, peace and stability.

The “decarbonisation divide” puts peace and stability at risk

Natural resource extraction has historically been linked to environmental crimes such as deforestation, illegal trade, animal trafficking, and the invasion of protected areas (UNEP, Plataforma CIPÓ). Unfortunately, chronic deficits of mining governance remain essentially unchanged. Some of the world’s most polluting stakeholders are leading the way in carbon-neutral transport, supporting rapid uptake of less carbon-intensive technologies while overlooking human rights violations and the environmental impacts of unsustainable supply chains.

Power to the people: initiatives like the Global Battery Alliance’s Battery Passport aims for battery production that respects human rights, including eliminating child labour

Just a few days ago, Bloomberg published an article showing the inhuman working conditions of truck drivers in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They spend weeks transporting minerals to ports for export and the energy transition. In DRC, an estimated 40 000 children have dropped out of school to work in cobalt mines, leading the US Department of Labor to include lithium-ion batteries in the 2022 list of goods produced by child labour. Moreover, local communities in resource-rich regions around the world continue to be left behind in development plans, even despite living in democracies. Such is the case, for instance, in Portuguese, Bolivian and Argentinean lithium-rich regions.

Today, significant concerns about clean technologies to decarbonise transport revolve around their affordability and the consequential risks of retarding adoption at scale. Tensions about the scarcity of these resources worry investors and analysts. But are decision makers concerned enough about the environmental and human conditions under which these resources enter the supply chain? Are they ensuring that the alternatives proposed to achieve a low-carbon future do not exacerbate inequalities between communities? Be that as it may, as EITI’s Mission Critical 2022 argues, “transition minerals may lead to a ‘decarbonisation divide’ between mineral producer and consumer countries”. Efforts are needed for stronger international co-operation to ensure a just transition and not a perpetuation of geopolitical injustices and inequalities between communities.

Light at the end of the tunnel: due diligence

Governance will be a pillar of sustainable mineral supply, determining the pathways society chooses to take to tackle climate change. But scientific research is also raising the prospects for a more peaceful future by developing alternatives to recycle and substitute minerals and to turn waste into resources.

Going circular goes beyond this. It makes setting ecological boundaries for innovation and extraction a cornerstone of peaceful decarbonisation. Olivia Lazard’s theory of EU ecological diplomacy and her TED Talk (below) have been a great source of inspiration for this blog piece.

At the policy level, stakeholders are also pushing for more transparency in various ways in the supply chain of decarbonisation pathways. The Global Battery Alliance’s Battery Passport is a solution that stands out for its effort to accelerate higher global ambitions by making of a current technology that is helping decarbonise the transport sector a safer, more transparent option. In the EU, the European Critical Raw Materials Act will also help increase monitoring capacities for social and environmental assessment of critical mineral extraction.

Know more: Understanding the ties between progress in science and maintaining peace and climate security

The International Week of Science and Peace encourages us to go the extra mile in the study and dissemination of information on the links between progress in science and technology and the maintenance of peace and security. In particular, 2022’s World Science Day for Peace and Development invites us to rethink the role that basic research has in broadening our understanding of the planet, and in finding ways for humans to have more sustainable, peaceful lifestyles (PDF link).

Engaging the wider public: UN World Science Day for Peace and Development

Before scaling up investment in new technologies, we need to ask ourselves, our companies, and our governments: Are we heading towards a climate-safe future if we choose to invest in this? And we need to hold all actors accountable for putting people and the environment first. Leading the way to a net-zero transport sector comes with the responsibility of ensuring that the technologies being pushed for don’t compromise on peace, human rights, and open societies, because no future will be sustainable without peace and climate stability in all parts of the world. Let us not forget this when we offer solutions at COP27 for a net-zero future and a net-zero transport sector.

María Santos Alfageme is a PhD student at Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon, Portugal. As a member of the Civil Engineering Research and Innovation for Sustainability CERIS-IST, her research focuses on the circularity of airport decarbonisation. 

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