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A Just Transition? Confronting the Energy-Extractive Nexus in the Pacific

Patrick Quinn

The Pacific is a region that needs little reminding of the urgency with which we must transition toward renewable energy technologies. At the same time, however, low-carbon economies will necessitate an increasingly greater volume of rare earth minerals and metals. In pursuit of these resources, the history of large-scale extractive industries in developing nations should be a cause for concern. For the Pacific in particular, greater focus needs to be paid to an understanding of who will bear the burden of this global energy transition if this transition is to avoid further exacerbating the already disproportionate impacts of the climate crisis.

As the drive for low-carbon energy increases, so too will the need for greater mining industries, itself resulting in disproportionate local social and ecological consequences. This ‘double movement’, if you will, will see steps necessary for mitigating the climate crisis be met with the drive to utilise industrialised extractive industries that, at least in part, created that very crisis to begin with.

Rare earth minerals are essential to everything from smartphones to fighter jets. Perhaps most crucially, these minerals are an essential component for the generation, transmission, and storage infrastructure of renewable energy technologies. Because of this, the global transition towards low-carbon economies has and will continue to drive increasing demand for these critical minerals. Some recent estimates have assessed that this growth in demand would require the production of minerals such as lithium and graphite to increase by as much as 500% by 2050.

At the same time, the Pacific is among the “richest” regions in the world for many of these resources. New Caledonia, for example, accounts for between 10-30% of the world’s known nickel deposits, while Fiji and Papua New Guinea hold vast and lucrative copper reserves. Such reserves have continued to pose an attractive prospect to a range of stakeholders. Against the backdrop of climate change, many of these stakeholders and adjacent extractive industries have frequently been accused of “greenwashing” as they reposition themselves as indispensable for this global transition away from fossil fuels.

While the extraction of these resources will allow for a swifter transition towards low-carbon economies, the prospect of such mining also offers these small nations a means to capitalise on their natural wealth. Beyond terrestrial deposits, the most lucrative prospect available to investors and Pacific nations is the large deposits of these minerals which currently lie untouched at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. These deep-sea polymetallic nodules, often called “battery rocks”, contain high grades of nickel, copper, manganese, and other precious ores.

This point is of particular interest in the Pacific, where each island nation claims a greater area of ocean than they do land mass. Each nation maintains ownership over the resources within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), up to 200 nautical miles from its shoreline. In the Pacific, the ratio of ocean-to-land is telling. For example, the ocean-to-land ratio for the Solomon Islands is 43:1. For Nauru this is as high as 7523:1.

In this respect, prospects of deep-sea mining may allow for the pursuit of social and developmental goals not otherwise achievable given the limited geographic and economic scale of Pacific Island nations. Within the EEZ of the Cook Islands alone, deep-sea manganese nodules, may be worth an estimated $10 trillion US. Moreover, an area of ocean roughly the size of Europe, known as the Clarion–Clipperton Zone (CCZ), borders the territorial waters of the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, and Tonga, for example, boasts the world’s largest untapped wealth of rare-earth elements.

It is easy to see the attraction. Indeed, on its surface, the prospects of the wealth of untapped minerals may seem like a win-win. The world gets the critical minerals necessary for renewable energy technologies, while the Pacific not only benefits from these technological transitions, but also from the drastic increase in demand and subsequent investment.

However, the net economic benefits to the Pacific may be limited, and the dramatic increase in extractive industries is just as likely to exacerbate environmental, social, and developmental challenges in the long term.

While the extraction of natural resources has long dominated Pacific economies, the ownership and operation of these endeavours have historically remained largely a foreign affair. Recent history points to a pattern of exploitation concerning extractive industries in developing nations, particularly in the Pacific. Despite their natural wealth, this has rarely translated into meaningful economic and human development, with GDP per capita remaining low for many Pacific Island states. In 2022 alone, Pacific communities saw less than 12% of the final value of the resources being extracted, with very little overall profits translating into royalties or reinvestment in the countries themselves.

What this demand does do is translate into an expansion of extractive industries of ever-increasing breadth and depth, placing greater pressures on the local environmental and social settings in which they take place. A rush towards deep-sea mining, specifically, could unleash an industry that inflicts irreversible and unpredictable environmental and ecological harm. As is likely the case, extractive projects will themselves disproportionately impact local communities already dealing with environmental and developmental challenges.

These industries may exacerbate pre-existing social and economic vulnerabilities, which can in turn generate deepening developmental challenges or even trigger violent conflict. Nauru’s disastrous phosphate mining schemes in the 1960s are just one example that left it desolate, barren, and set the stage for its later economic crisis. In 1989 the Panguna copper mine not only poisoned the local environment in Bouganville, but became the epicentre of the bloody decade-long civil conflict in what is now an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea (PNG).

The degree of mining necessary for low-carbon energy and storage technologies could itself generate the equivalent of 16 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. Such emissions would in large part negate any net positive influence green technologies may yield in the short term. The reality of these industrial emissions would have the greatest impact in localised contexts, where Pacific communities will also continue to bear the brunt of the climate crisis. Thus, much like the impacts of the climate crisis itself, the extractive industrial forces necessary for its mitigation demand a more critical evaluation of who bears the disproportionate burdens of this global energy transition.

Pacific nations themselves remain divided on the issue. Some nations have increasingly called for a moratorium on deep sea mining, while Kiribati, Tonga, and Cook Islands have already approved mining projects within their territorial waters. Adding more urgency to this equation, in June 2021 Nauru triggered an obscure legal clause which compels the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to finalise international regulations by mid-2023. Beyond this date, mining contractors will be able to begin work even in the absence of formal guidelines.

The global transition towards low or net-zero carbon economies represents one of the most important challenges of the 21st century. However, greater focus needs to be directed towards an understanding of who will bear the burden of this global energy transition. If not adequately addressed, the paradox at the heart of this energy transition promises to exacerbate the already disproportionate impacts of the climate crisis. Callous utilitarian calculations or asymmetric profit-driven approaches, where the urgency for transition justifies the inevitable costs in localised contexts, demand greater attention if we wish to avoid negating the very purpose of such a green transition in the first place.

Patrick Quinn holds a Masters of International Relations from the University of Melbourne. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of any other entity.

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