Now self-styled environmentalist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, popularly known simply as Lula, is back in power as the President of Brazil, protecting the environment–specifically the Amazon–is back on the political agenda in the South American country. Lula is currently holding court with the UK, France, Japan, and the European Union in regard to funding assistance for the protection of the Amazon rainforest. The ongoing talks come in the wake of concrete promises from the US–just last month, President Joe Biden unveiled plans to request $500 million over five years to contribute to the Amazon Fund, a financial mechanism created by the Brazilian government in 2008 which works to combat deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.
The fund currently manages $740 million to protect the environment and has, until now, been supported almost exclusively by Germany and Norway. However, international interest has been increasing with the aim of reversing a deforestation rate that certain scientists have categorized as terminal. During Bolsonaro’s presidency, in particular, the rate of illegal deforestation as well as illegal mining, logging, and drug trafficking rose significantly, and organized crime and narcotrafficking pose an increasing threat to forest preservation.
While often being miscategorized as the lungs of the world–the Amazon is actually not a major source of oxygen since its ample trees consume so much through photosynthesis–the Amazon does hold wondrous treasures, including in the form of rare earth deposits which are vital for the world’s clean energy transition. Thus, the world, and particularly Brazil finds itself in a bit of a catch-22; how to protect and replant an indispensable part of the global ecosystem and home to essential biodiversity while at the same time mining and exploiting the necessary resources to foster the clean energy transition.
As a recent Foreign Policy article argued, “how Brazil handles the energy transition’s burgeoning hunger for resources will help determine whether our policies to save the planet will leave us with a planet left to save.” Indeed, the next steps will be crucial in determining how much of the planet is actually left to protect by means of the green transition–and how we obtain the raw materials necessary for that transition will be of the utmost importance.
Rare earth deposits worth their weight in gold
The history of Brazil has always been deeply colored by the country’s mineral wealth. Attention has simply shifted from diamonds and gold to the metals defining the 21st century–minerals such as cobalt, lithium, and niobium. Thanks to its advantageous geology, Brazil sits on substantial stocks of these highly valuable critical materials: 94% of the world’s niobium, a white metal crucial in strengthening steel, 22% of all graphite, and 16% of known reserves of rare earth metals.
Niobium, for example, is a transformative material that enables the development of next-gen batteries. The advantage of niobium is that when used as a coating material in the cathode in batteries, less cobalt is required and there is improved electric conductivity and longer-term stability. Thus, niobium is in the formulation of new anode materials for high power, faster charging, wider operation temperature, long life, and safety.
As electric transport is a core component of the clean energy transition, the role of batteries is primordial. For electric cars, batteries that charge faster and hold a longer charge would greatly improve the productivity of electric buses or delivery vans, allowing for more efficiency and less charging time. Rapid charging batteries may also make the transition to electric trains more feasible without having to install expensive infrastructure.
Mining for a reason, mining sustainably
Given batteries’ key importance to the clean energy transition, the question of how to mine and refine the rare earth materials at their core will become ever more important–in particular, the question of how to mine and refine these elements in a sustainable and responsible manner.
Some companies in the sector are making important strides in this regard, such as mining giant CMOC. A mining company founded in the late 1960s, CMOC is currently the second-largest producer of cobalt and niobium in the world, with notable operations in China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Australia, and Brazil. In Brazil, in particular, CMOC has served as a pertinent case study for other mining companies on how to effectively manage a holding in a geologically and geographically complex place. Beyond technical attributes, CMOC has been adept at integrating into the local community and following stringent sustainability guidelines and best practices. Strong investment in environmental responsibility has resulted in a variety of conversation and easement projects.
The company has, in addition, prioritized social partnerships to further integrate into the community. CMOC has invested in partnerships with education institutions and trade schools as well as offering apprenticeships and internships. To create further job opportunities for the community, the firm also prioritizes hiring local suppliers.
Other firms in the sector, such as heritage investor Anglo-American, have also issued strong signals with their sustainability targets. The company has partnered with H2 Green Steel, a Swedish hydrogen and steel producer, to collaborate on the advancement of low-carbon steel-making processes. This partnership is reflective of a larger goal, as Anglo-American ambitiously aims for a 50% reduction in scope III (linked to material production) of its emissions by 2040–something which would allow the company to reach operational carbon neutrality in that same year, an ambitious and impactful commitment for a company of Anglo-American’s size.
More such commitments will be needed as Brazil’s mineral riches become ever-more critical to the globe’s green transition. Given these minerals’ significant potential contribution to a far-broader shift towards sustainability which could help preserve vital natural resources such as the Amazon, the question of how to mine and utilize these minerals in a sustainable manner will become ever-more critical.