Environmental and Social Costs of Mining Minerals for Clean Tech

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Environmental and Social Costs of Mining Minerals for Clean Tech

Global demand for transitioning to clean technologies, such as switching to electric cars and expanding solar and wind energy, to fight climate change is also increasing the need to mine critical minerals like lithium, graphite, nickel, cobalt, and zinc.

However, mining these minerals comes at significant environmental costs. At the same time, some of these mineral-rich areas are also water-scarce.

The World Resources Institute article notes that “at least 16% of the world’s land-based critical mineral mines, deposits and districts are located in areas already facing high or extremely high levels of water stress. These are areas where agriculture, industry and households regularly use up much or most of the available water supply.

Without proper management, mining critical minerals can be extremely water-intensive and polluting, further straining limited freshwater supplies.

The article adds that mining and processing these minerals requires significant amounts of water, and residual waste from these activities pollutes water sources in nearby communities. For instance, extracting lithium, an essential material for making EV batteries and solar panels, is water-intensive.

Additionally, in Southern American countries like Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia, which contain more than half of the global lithium supply, lithium is extracted from enormous amounts of brine water, leaving it on the surface for the water to evaporate. This leaves behind lithium carbonate, a critical element in clean energy technologies. Draining out vast quantities of brine water also causes fresh water to flow into brine aquifers and combine with salt water, depleting freshwater supplies.

Indigenous communities in Chile and Argentina who live in this already water-stress area report contamination of the water supplies they use for drinking and farming from lithium extraction operations.

Other highly water-stressed countries that contain these minerals include the United States, Australia, South Africa, India, China, Mongolia, Russia, Mexico, Chile, and Namibia.

The Climate Portal article notes that mining can be dangerous for workers and, in certain places, is tied to labour and human rights abuses. Surrounding communities, often in low-income or developing areas, disproportionately shoulder these burdens, leading to land-use and environmental justice conflicts.”

The article highlights the adverse environmental and social ills from increased mineral mining.

“Scott Odell, a postdoctoral associate at the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative who studies mining, climate change, and socio-environmental conflict, says pinpointing the worst harms is tough, but land-use change, freshwater contamination, and scarcity are major concerns.”

In the US, for instance, copper mining, the largest mineral mined in the country, produces enormous amounts of waste. These mining waste piles can be as large as 1000 acres. Waste is typically stored in tailing ponds.

However, these are prone to leak into the environment and water supplies, which cause serious health problems like cancers and respiratory diseases and can poison fish and crops. 

Adverse mining impacts have pushed affected communities and environmental advocates to demand greater industry accountability and enforce stricter regulations. The article notes that raising awareness of these issues will push the industries in a positive direction.

“We need to respond to climate change, and we’re doing that by transitioning to clean energy, but we need to recognise that producing clean energy has its own environmental and social impacts that we need to fix concurrently,” ” Odell says.

The WRI article also proposes solutions to mitigate mining’s impacts on water scarcity and contamination.

Solutions include reducing demands for new critical minerals through reuse and recycling and applying new mining techniques that minimise water wastage.

However, most of these new technologies are still in their nascent states and have yet to be tested on a commercial scale. Governments should also require mining companies in these water-scarce countries to publish water use and quality data at critical mineral sites.


Lakshman, S. (2024, January 10). More Critical Minerals Mining Could Strain Water Supplies in Stressed Regions. World Resource Institute. Retrieved from https://www.wri.org/insights/critical-minerals-mining-water-impacts?

Crawford, I. (2022, July 21). Will mining the resources needed for clean energy cause problems for the environment? Climate Portal. Retrieved from https://climate.mit.edu/ask-mit/will-mining-resources-needed-clean-energy-cause-problems-environment

Arcaya, M. and Gribkoff, E. (2022, March 14). Climate Justice. Massachusetts Insitute of Technology Climate Portam. Retrieved from https://climate.mit.edu/explainers/climate-justice

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