This project uses social sciences and humanities research to identify how the concept of a just transition could provide a new framework for the responsible extraction of ‘energy transition metals’ (ETMs) used by the renewable energy sector globally.

The project aims to:

  • Produce empirical knowledge on the justice dimensions that exist in the ETM supply chain, by focussing on a selected ETM from the Pacific Islands.
  • Identify how the concept of a just transition can provide a new framework for responsible extraction of ETMs, and enhanced supply chain due diligence and harm reduction.

The shift to low-carbon energy systems will require vast quantities of ETMs – such as cobalt, copper, lithium, nickel and others – for new energy technologies and infrastructure. Research demonstrates these metals are mostly sourced from regions with high environmental, social and governance (ESG) risks and that increased extraction of ETMs under conditions of climate change will amplify risks to people and the environment. Meeting global demand for ETMs will therefore be a critical pinch point in the transition to new energy futures. Failure to address the social costs and justice issues of extraction will severely impact just transition outcomes.

To achieve a new (global) energy future that is just and fair there must be a focus on ESG pressures associated with the increased supply of ETMs.

The project maps and examines the procedural, distributional and restorative justice dimensions of the global demand for ETMs. It will examine these issues in the Pacific Islands region, which hosts numerous large-scale mines and enormous undeveloped deposits of ETMs.

The Pacific Islands region is at the frontline of a ‘double exposure’ to climate change and the consequences of economic globalisation. The region is exposed to rising sea levels and catastrophic cyclones and droughts. It has a long history of large-scale mining and contains enormous deposits of ETMs but remains energy poor and struggles to convert its mineral wealth into human development. For example, New Caledonia contains 25% of the global supply of nickel, there is more than 44 million tonnes of undeveloped copper between PNG and Fiji, and it is estimated that deep sea cobalt reserves in the Pacific are five times larger than global terrestrial reserves. Increased demand for these metals to build low-carbon energy systems, expected to grow dramatically over the next twenty years, is both a consequence and a driver of climate change and economic globalisation – exacerbating the social, economic, political, territorial, and ecological pressures of extraction.

Evidence shows that the extraction of natural resources (including ‘old economy’ extractives like gold, oil and gas) creates environmental degradation, human rights abuses, displacement and violent conflict in the Pacific. Will increased extraction of ETMs will result in similar justice issues or new perverse patterns of injustice?

The project is funded by The British Academy (ref COVJT210062)