Volt Rush review by Henry Sanderson – hopeful survey of winners and losers in the race to green | science and nature books
HEnry Sanderson has written a remarkably hopeful and helpful book. Guess that wasn’t his original plan. The longtime commodities and mining reporter for the FinancialTimes, Sanderson may have sold this book on the idea that “going green” was actually taking us in dark directions. And indeed, his in-depth reporting – more focused on corporate history than on-the-ground interviews – shows the corruption that underpins many of the battery mineral mining schemes, human rights abuses of man and the environmental problems that may arise from this mining operation. and the geopolitical complications that emerge when countries like China and Russia control crucial parts of trade.
These flaws are fairly well known at this point: the underside of, say, “artisanal” Congolese cobalt mining has been widely reported, and the war in Ukraine, which happened too recently to be reflected in the narrative of Sanderson, pointed to Moscow’s control over certain critical materials. , such as nickel. Indeed, understanding of these types of threats has penetrated deep enough that it has become a favorite trope of the fossil fuel industry; I was recently debating with a Republican former congressman who was outraged about African child labor in the mineral supply chain.
To be clear (which Sanderson really isn’t), even if the worst abuses were 10 times more prevalent than alleged, they wouldn’t come close to matching the damage done by fossil fuels as batteries, solar panels and wind turbines could replace. The most recent study, for example, shows that 8.7 million people a year, mostly poor, die from breathing in particulates and other by-products of burning coal, oil and gas – that’s one in five deaths on this planet, more than HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, war and terrorism combined.
And that’s before we calculate the pain of climate change that those same fuels are now causing – the toll of floods, fires, droughts, disease and displacement. The UN estimates that climate change could cause a billion refugees by mid-century, so if we were to make a deal with the devil to unleash the power of cleaner energy, any utility the would do.
But the relatively happy implication of Sanderson’s reporting is that we may not have to make this deal. When he examines the state of cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, he finds that child labor and manual mining seem to have peaked a few years ago; Under pressure from NGOs such as Amnesty International, automakers have tried to drive “blood cobalt” out of their supply chains, either by finding new sources in Morocco or Australia, or by sourcing from large industrial suppliers like Glencore, whose mines were more regulated. It’s far from an ideal solution – Sanderson provides plenty of evidence demonstrating the corruption and greed in this industrial supply chain – but it’s certainly not as bad as the track record the oil industry has made. suffered by poor countries around the world. (Skeptics should read the masterful history of Exxon by Steve Coll, Private Empirewhich is also a masterclass on corporate reporting.)
Sanderson also finds, case after case, that one of the answers to corruption, abuse, and material shortages is new engineering that finds a different way to achieve the same goal. He points out, for example, that automakers have started making cobalt-free batteries, relying instead on lithium phosphate; many Tesla models are now equipped with the new technology. The lithium supply chain is also dominated by China, but as Sanderson notes, large new installations in places such as California’s Salton Sea are finding ways to use low-carbon geothermal energy to distill the mineral from toxic brine. (Apparently this technology is also possible in Cornwall.)
All of these developments are, in a sense, predictable. As a massive and recent Oxford study on learning curves clearly shows, the price of renewables has fallen inexorably over the years because, as much as minerals, they depend on intelligence. A few years ago, for example, journalists wrote anguished dispatches about fears that a shortage of balsa wood would halt the production of wind turbine blades; manufacturers turned to synthetic foams instead, and prices continued to fall. One imagines that the current spikes in the price of fossil fuels will simply lead to more innovation.
And in the end, the world will be much better for it, for simple physical reasons. You must indeed mine to produce the minerals necessary for a clean energy world. But you don’t have to do it anywhere almost as much like in a world of fossil fuels. After mining the rare earth minerals or cobalt or lithium for a solar panel, you place that panel in a field where, for the next quarter century, the sun provides the energy as it rises above from the horizon. (And Sanderson points out that at the end of that time, recycling ingredients into clean tech is both possible and profitable.) You don’t burn the solar panel to generate power, which requires you to build another – that’s what you do with coal. Stanford professor Mark Jacobson estimates that in a clean energy world, total mining load would drop by 80%; an easy way to understand this dematerialization is to remember that 40% of the maritime traffic on our planet today is just carrying coal, oil and gas eternally in both directions.
Sanderson ends with very good advice: drive much smaller cars, if we need cars, favor the production of batteries for trucks which are much more constantly used. And use fewer things in general, especially to avoid “diverting consequences and risks to ecosystems and to people with less power – and therefore less influence in global affairs”. He’s absolutely right: clean energy cannot be a license for even more growth in luxury consumption.
The climate crisis leaves us with no choice but to build a new world and, as Sanderson makes clear, we are capable of making it a better one than the dirty and dangerous planet we take for granted.
Bill McKibben is an author, educator, conservationist, and founder of 350.org and Third Act
Volt Rush: Winners and Losers of the Race to Green by Henry Sanderson is published by Oneworld (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply