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Peak extraction of minerals spells disaster

Environmental damage and increased global warming are the direct result of a poisonous combination of commodity speculation, reckless overproduction and failing to recycle.

Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee highlight this deadly brew in the report of an enquiry into strategically important metals.

The price of metals and minerals is soaring, as hedge fund speculators move in. They are buying up vast quantities of copper on the London Metals Exchange – but also dealing directly in more obscure metals such as rare earths, lithium and tungsten.

The committee heard from the Royal Society of Chemistry that vast quantities of metals have been removed from the ground over the past 50 years (the period of corporate-driven globalisation more or less). There are still reserves but these are harder to get at.

“You just have to dig deeper,” the committee was told. But digging deeper uses more energy – contributing to global warming – and causes greater environmental degradation.

The Royal Institute of International Affairs confirmed that while there may be few short-term shortages, there is a growing pattern of metals being drawn into trade wars and political disputes. And in the long term, unsustainable consumption patterns will result in actual scarcities.

In other words, as with oil, there is a growing trend to higher metal prices, to resource wars and disputes, and to greater environmental degradation and global warming, up to and beyond the point of peak extraction.

The environmental impacts may be quite close to home. A Cornish tin mine is to reopen soon, as well as a tungsten mine on the edge of Dartmoor. They are extracting gold in Wales and the Grampian mountains.

The committee recognised that there is far greater scope for recycling and recommended “cradle to grave” models of production. However, since production of commodities largely takes place in other countries, the UK has no power to impose this approach.

And indeed the UK is guilty of exporting its recycling problems. Where cheap, but environmentally damaging processes are available, waste is often exported to other countries.

For example, insulated copper cable can be granulated and the plastic coating removed, so both materials can be reused. But the easy solution is just to burn off the plastic coating. “This creates environmental issues which, within the UK, would be expensive to overcome,” the committee heard.

Therefore the problem is being exported to places like India, China, Africa and the Philippines where the initial reprocessing is “crude and environmentally damaging”.

UK firms are also guilty of illegally exporting electrical and electronic equipment, labelled as second hand and for re-use, when in reality it is going to be dismantled by hand, with huge health risks for workers handling dangerous substances with no protection.

The committee also took the opportunity to refer practices on the London Metal Exchange to the Office of Fair Trading. They found that big trading firms were warehousing vast quantities of metals through wholly-owned subsidiaries, thereby benefiting twice from higher prices – as traders and as suppliers.

Sadly, the idea of a green economic miracle is impossible in a profit-driven capitalist economy. The majority of the money printed by the US and British governments in an attempt to fund a recovery has not been lent for green initiatives but drawn into commodity speculation. Governments have been entirely unable and unwilling to prevent this.

The contradiction is that the resulting rising prices will limit consumption. At this point more firms descend into bankruptcy and more workers are thrown on the dole. Whatever happens, it is ordinary working people – and the eco-system – that will pay. We need not only an economic, but first an enabling political revolution, to halt this crisis.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
19 May 2011

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Charles says:

A valuable,timely article. In addition to metals, rare earths and of course oil and water, another vital substance could be running out - phosphorus. In some ways phosphorus is even more important than oil, because there are no substitutes. Modern agriculture would be inconceivable without phosphate fertilizers. In 2008 the total global production was 150 million tons and the demand continues to increase. Some scientists believe the supply of phosphorus has already peaked (see for instance Ewan Kingston, Ecologist, Jan.12, 2010) and the reserves may not last more than 50-130 years (www.energybulletin.net/node/33164. These concerns led to the founding of an international organisation, the Global Phosphorus Research Institute and I refer you to their website. phosphorusfutures.net, for further information. Recently, mathematician Roland Scholz has criticised the type of calculations that have been used and claims there is no phosphorus peak on the horizon (www.energybulletin.net/print/57020).

However, Scholz agrees with other researchers about the ecological and social costs of the unsustainable use of the resource: "the environmental damage caused by the extraction and use of phosphorus is still greatly underestimated". Unlike oil, phosphorus can be recycled, but if that was organised efficiently it would be part of a socially-responsible, green economic miracle which, as Penny Cole points out, is impossible under capitalism.


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