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The energy transition: Green for whom?

The energy transition: Green for whom?

by Cynthia Morinville

Cynthia Morinville

With the current climate emergency requiring an immediate divestment from fossil fuels, lithium is quickly becoming one of the critical metals necessary to the energy transition. From the uptake of electric vehicles to the production of batteries for the storage of renewable energies, the global demand for lithium is expected to increase significantly. But as mining activities worldwide are booming to meet this demand, our ability to recover and recycle lithium remains limited. And while lithium and renewable energies are often touted as alternatives to dirty carbon-based energies, its mining and end-of-life management continue to raise profound questions about the environmental sustainability and social costs of so-called green technologies. I join the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change as a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow working under the supervision of Dr. Anna Zalik to explore these questions.

Small scrap traders in India

Through a multi-sited inquiry, my postdoctoral research proposes to investigate the development of an emerging lithium industry in Québec along the supply chain. The project involves ethnographic research at mine sites, transformation plants, and recycling facilities. Québec is home to the world’s third-largest lithium rock deposit, and six possible mine sites have been identified across Eeyou Istchee James Bay and Kativik in Northern Quebec, including Nemaska Lithium and North American Lithium. The province is also home to Recyclage Seneca-Lithion, Canada’s first hydrometallurgy facility for lithium recycling and one of only ten in the world. In doing so, the research is slated to dress one of the first comprehensive analyses of this arguably nascent industry in North America and will contribute to a fast-growing literature on lithium mining which has so far focused on sites of extraction in the Lithium Triangle (Argentina, Bolivia and Chile), China and Australia.

At the heart of this project lies a tension between the growing demands for green energies in urban centres and the profound environmental and social impacts such transition entails elsewhere. At the national scale, this tension translates into concerns for indigenous territorial sovereignty and reconciliation. At the international level, these questions also expose long-seeded concerns with resource colonialism. This postdoctoral research is also embedded in a larger book project on alternative energy in Quebec. Lithium extraction is here investigated through longer histories and discourses around energy sovereignty and production in the province. The development of a lithium industry is thus not only understood through the legacy of the James Bay hydroelectric development, but also investigated in parallel to other alternative energy projects currently promoted in Quebec including the construction of liquified natural gas pipelines and the mining of rare earths.

Scrapyard in Ghana

This project builds on my doctoral dissertation, Mining the Waste Stream: Value and Disposability in the Global E-Waste Economy, which follows the journeys of discarded phones and computers through sites of transit and dismantling in India and Ghana. Beginning with dismantlers and small scrap traders toiling in the community of Bholakpur in Hyderabad, India, the dissertation follows the hands of entire families of workers whose recovery work is central to moving scrap along recycling chains stretching across the subcontinent. Following the materials into the homes of waste workers, I document the labours of women simultaneously shoring up both scrap and home economies. I then detail the work of larger traders and kin networks sending materials on cross-country journeys and through the gates of factories to new sites of industrial manufacturing. The thread is later picked up on the shores of Accra, Ghana, at the Agbogbloshie scrapyard where I follow materials collected in bags and carts drawn by pickers through city traffic and onto the scales of foreign scrap metal exporters. Finally, the dissertation turns to the work of international scrap exporters bulking and laundering recovered materials out of the shadows of informal waste economies to feed the hungry industrial economies of Asia and the Middle East.

Ultimately, my doctoral research offers an understanding of recycling and end-of-life management as an extractive sector in itself rather than simply a problem of waste management, and shows how the materials recovered by informal recyclers and the conditions under which these workers labour are directly shaped by global markets for scrap metals. The dissertation thus argues for a joint analysis of primary and secondary mining circuits. A conclusion which directly informs the design of my postdoctoral research examining lithium as resource through its life-cycle – from mining to recycling.

Cynthia Morinville’s work has appeared in journals such as Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Geoforum and Water Alternatives. Her research was funded by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, the International Development Research Centre, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and the University of Toronto.