How can the energy transition impact the Amazon?

A new publication warns that the transition to the so-called “clean energy” will require increased extraction of various ores, many of them located in the Amazon, with the risk of escalating socio-environmental conflicts in the region

Carlos Penteado

The Comissão Pró-Índio de São Paulo (CPI-SP) launches a new publication that discusses how energy transition policies impact the demand for aluminium and its raw material, bauxite. The authors, Luiz Jardim Wanderley and Pedro Catanzaro Rocha Leão, seek to understand how the increase in aluminium production will affect mineral extraction in the Brazilian Amazon with a focus on the municipality of Oriximiná, State of Pará, where the country’s largest bauxite producer is located.

With its latest publication, the CPI-SP adds to the voices that warn of the risks involved in increasing mineral production to ensure the replacement of fossil fuels for other forms of energy.  Energy transition policies need to consider that mining is an activity that generates significant socio-environmental impacts and conflicts that can increase in the coming years, especially in countries of the Global South.

Furthermore, it should be noted that tackling the climate crisis is not just about replacing energy sources but, rather, about dealing with a number of systemic and profound issues, such as inequality between the Global South and North; the current intensity of consumption of goods; the dependence of individual motorized transport; expansion of recycling; greater energy efficiency, among others.

What is energy transition?

In order to achieve the Paris Agreement target of limiting the increase of global average temperatures to a maximum of 1.5 °C by 2100, a general policy for the energy transition from fossil fuels to other forms of energy – mostly solar and wind – is being projected, with the massification of cars, machinery and electrical equipment, both in buildings and in the production process.

Why will more minerals be needed?

The energy transition will produce an increase in the demand for minerals, since photovoltaic solar plants, wind farms and electric vehicles require more mineral resources in their composition than other facilities and vehicles. And to connect the new power generation structures to urban and industrial consumer centres, the power transmission network will need to be expanded. In addition, the transition will require the replacement of fleets of vehicles currently in circulation, since, an adaptation of the existing fleet is, in principle, not under consideration.

What is the role of aluminium?

Despite this new technological architecture of electrified renewable energy demand different ores for its construction, the great demand will occur mainly on cobalt, lithium, copper, lead, nickel, rare earths, and aluminium. Aluminium could have a 29% global growth in demand by 2030.

Raw material of aluminium

The raw material of aluminium is bauxite. After extraction, bauxite is refined into an intermediate product, alumina, and then melted into aluminium.

Today, Brazil is the fourth largest producer of bauxite in the world, as well as having the fourth largest international ore reserve, after Guinea, Australia, and Vietnam. The State of Pará holds approximately 75% of the national reserves.

Bauxite in the forest underground

The Amazon is an important producer of bauxite and may suffer from the growth of socio-environmental conflicts due to the new demand, from deforestation of native forest areas inhabited by traditional populations, increase in the number and volume of tailings dams, and demand for energy sources.

The largest producer of bauxite in Brazil, Mineração Rio do Norte (MRN) is located in the municipality of Oriximiná, in the countryside of the State of Pará. MRN, throughout more than 40 years of operation, has already caused the change of ground cover in 10.8 thousand hectares for mineral extraction, installation of tailings dams and infrastructure inside the current Saracá Taquera National Forest, areas originally used by quilombola and riverside communities. The new demand for aluminium can accelerate the extraction in MRN mines, increasing tailings production, deforestation, and exacerbating socio-environmental damage to local communities.

Carlos Penteado

Transição Energética e a Demanda por Alumínio na Amazônia Brasileira (in Portuguese) 
Authorship: Luiz Jardim Wanderley and Pedro Catanzaro Rocha Leão
May 2023

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