Family Forests Are Key to Fighting Climate Change. But They Need Help.
By Austyn Gaffney
Wayne Brensinger, 63, has spent his entire life exploring Deer View Farm in eastern Pennsylvania. From an early age, he hunted squirrels and deer, drank clean spring water, and meandered down game trails through 500 acres of Northern Appalachian woodlands, with just 25 acres cleared for corn and soybeans. The property, in his family for over 150 years, was an idyllic place to grow up and raise his own children.
Brensinger just assumed the trees would always be there; he didn't have a plan for how to manage them long term. Then came the gypsy moths.
Dotted with blue and red circles down their backs, the bristly gypsy moth caterpillars chewed through the leaves of 250 acres of hardwood trees, including an estimated 1,250 of Brensinger's favorite tree, the white oak, and over 7,500 chestnut oaks. The damage cleared the way for invasive species. Ferns and stilt grass, accompanied by the fast-growing saplings of birch and gum trees, took root and shaded out other valuable seedlings.
"They came in and just ate all the trees," said Brensinger. "We had some large die-offs due to those caterpillars."
Only half his woods remained. Brensinger hired a forester for the first time, and together they created a forest management plan ― a road map for the continual care of his forest. They applied herbicide and replanted ravaged trees, and his woods have started to rebound. But it will take over 60 years of continual management for the new, younger trees to grow to the maturity of the ones killed.
Brensinger's struggle is far from unique, it's hard to maintain healthy forests especially as the impacts of the climate crisis become more pronounced.
"Family forests face numerous threats, amplified by climate change, including invasive pests, pathogens and a legacy of unsustainable forest management," said Josh Parrish, director of working woodlands for the The Nature Conservancy, an environmental non-profit. Forest owners need support and resources to tackle these, he added, not just for their own benefit but because their trees represent a vital weapon in the fight against climate change.
Forests are natural carbon sinks, soaking up more carbon from the atmosphere than they release, and research shows that improving the stewardship of woodlands is one of the most effective tools for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Today, forests blanket 766 million acres of the U.S., and 38% of these woodlands ― more land than California and Texas combined ― are owned by families and individuals. There are more than 20 million of these private owners, and according to the nonprofit American Forest Foundation, their family forests alone store an estimated 14 billion tons of carbon ― equivalent to the emissions of 12,000 coal-fired power plants.
They could store much more.
Conservationists have identified these private woodlands as one of the best routes to increasing carbon storage in the U.S. Forests currently offset 11.3% of the nation's annual carbon emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But they have the potential to offset around 20%, the American Forest Foundation says, if conservation programs are implemented.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has recognized the untapped value: His company is putting the first $10 million of its $100 million Right Now Climate Fund ― an initiative aimed at removing carbon from the air ― toward family forest preservation.
In order to manage their forests in sustainable ways ― culling invasive species, cultivating mature trees and fighting pests ― many families need help. It requires a lot of work, expertise and financial outlay, which family owners can't always pull together.
"The first thing they need is a forest management plan, and less than 15% of forest owners in Pennsylvania have a plan," said Parrish.
Many family owners generate income by selling trees to loggers. But loggers often want to buy older trees and are willing to pay more for them ― a practice called "high grading." Selling off too many mature trees, however, shortens the lifespan of a forest and lowers its carbon capturing powers. In Northern Appalachia, where Brensinger is based, unsustainable logging is one of the biggest hindrances to cultivating healthy forest lands.
But there is another avenue to make money that conservationists say can both help owners maintain healthy forests and maximize their potential to tackle climate change: carbon offsets. Previously, only large commercial landowners and federal or state governments have had easy access to carbon markets, but now there is a new focus on bringing in smaller family-owned forests, too.
The idea of carbon offsets is simple: Carbon emitters purchase "credits" to offset their emissions, essentially paying someone else to remove carbon from the atmosphere in their place ― through actions such as protecting wildlife habitats or planting trees. The credits are popular because they allow countries and corporations to continue to emit and still remain within legally binding caps on carbon emissions. Global carbon markets are now worth around $214 billion.
In order to qualify to sell credits, forest landowners typically have to pay a forester to calculate the carbon in every tree on their property, which can cost upwards of $100,000. Then, sustainability standards programs like Verra determine what additional carbon storage could be obtained through conservation efforts over and above what the owner is already doing.
It's this additional carbon storage ― from not logging mature trees or not selling a portion of the forest to developers ― that is meant to be sold as offsets. The goal is to ensure that carbon polluters aren't trying to offset their emissions with practices that landowners were already implementing anyway.
"Existing healthy forests are the status quo," said Bill Stewart, a forestry specialist and co-director of the University of California's Berkeley Forests. "We need to improve the situation by capturing more carbon and holding it."
The carbon offset process is long and complex. Plus, landowners entering the carbon market typically need huge swaths of forest ― roughly 1,500 acres ― to draw the interest of offset buyers. Family forest owners have an average of 67 acres.
To help these small forest owners capture additional carbon from their properties and enter the carbon marketplace, the American Forest Foundation and The Nature Conservancy have started a program to aggregate the offerings of small, family-owned properties.
Called the Family Forest Carbon Program, it aims to sell carbon credits to companies based on those bundles of acres and to pay landowners annually from the proceeds. In March, the program's pilot effort opened applications for landowners in six rural Pennsylvania counties.
Bypassing expensive methods of measuring a forest's carbon storage ― like going tree by tree ― the organization developed a system that estimates carbon capture potential based on the overall health of the forest. It provides landowners with instructions on how to improve forest health based not on a costly assessment of their land, but on knowing what it takes to have a healthy forest in their particular part of the country.
For example, owners in the West might be advised to reduce a forest's vulnerability to wildfire by clearing debris and overgrown vegetation. In Pennsylvania, that advice would cover timber management practices, including high grading, which can damage the forest ecosystem by taking away important species, reducing both diversity and density.
The Family Forest Carbon Program hopes to persuade owners to forgo the short-term cash boost of high-grading by paying 20% of the "opportunity cost" of preserving mature trees for a more diverse harvest later on. The scheme will also foot roughly 60% of the cost of treatments that remove competing vegetation, like invasive species or overcrowding saplings.
Initially funded by a mix of foundations, companies and the U.S. Forest Service, the program received a multimillion-dollar injection from the Right Now Climate Fund this month, making Amazon its largest supporter. "Amazon's investment in the Family Forest Carbon Program showcases the significant role family-owned forests can play as a climate mitigation solution," said Christine Cadigan, director of the program at the American Forest Foundation.
The pilot had an initial goal of partnering with 100 family forest owners, together owning roughly 9,000 acres, by the end of the summer. By 2021, they hoped to roll out a larger pilot, banding together 1,000 landowners across Pennsylvania and expanding into western Maryland and West Virginia. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, the mini-pilot has been put temporarily on pause.
But even without COVID-19, creating carbon credits is a challenging enterprise. While offsets have become a multibillion-dollar market, they've remained a controversial way to mitigate fossil fuel emissions.
One problem is "leakage," when storing carbon in one area simply leads to it being released in another. For example, while landowners in an offsets program may harvest less timber, the same quantity of wood may just be harvested elsewhere if the demand for wood products doesn't change. In California, a research paper found that around 80% of the offsets purchased for its statewide carbon program leaked in another location.
Programs must also address permanence. In traditional forest programs, this means offsets are purchased on the premise that the carbon will be sequestered from the atmosphere for at least 100 years. The Family Forest Carbon Program says that while it aims to partner with landowners for shorter contracts, between 10 and 30 years, it plans to have enough landowners participating so that carbon storage will be ongoing across the region, and eventually the nation. If a contract expires with one landowner, other forests will still be under contract or coming under contract.
Still, forests are inherently risky carbon containers, said Barbara Haya, a research fellow for the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project at UC Berkeley. Climate change is causing a tremendous loss of forest carbon. Increasingly frequent and destructive wildfires as well as warmer weather ― which leads to more disease and pest outbreaks, like Brensinger's gypsy moths ― are destroying huge swaths of forestland.
"Drawing carbon out of the atmosphere with trees is never equal to, and it never truly offsets, our emissions from fossil fuels," Haya warned. While managing forests for carbon sequestration is something landowners need to do, she said, "it in no way takes the place of reducing our fossil fuel emissions as quickly as we can."
The less quantifiable value of projects like the Family Forest Carbon Program might lie in their ability to change the way society views forests, from the appraisal of what is removed to the embrace of what an intact forest can offer.
Parrish, the Nature Conservancy official, pointed to the "co-benefits" of carbon sequestration: protecting wildlife habitat for birds, mammals and amphibians; preserving the landscape with edible foraging and conservation hunting; and promoting recreation. These co-benefits can help sustain a forest owner's dedication to woodland management ― a dedication that Parrish, who manages 150 wooded acres in Pennsylvania, hopes to pass on to his daughters.
"A couple years ago I started thinking about legacy and thinking about when my two girls someday have the property and own it," said Parrish. "I want to make sure there are more tools around that can help them essentially understand the complexities around forest management and have the right tools to make the right decisions."
This story originally appeared in HuffPost and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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Japan will release radioactive wastewater from the failed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, the government announced on Tuesday.
The water will be treated before release, and the International Atomic Energy Agency said the country's plans were in keeping with international practice, The New York Times reported. But the plan is opposed by the local fishing community, environmental groups and neighboring countries. Within hours of the announcement, protesters had gathered outside government offices in Tokyo and Fukushima, according to NPR.
"The Japanese government has once again failed the people of Fukushima," Greenpeace Japan Climate and Energy Campaigner Kazue Suzuki said in a statement. "The government has taken the wholly unjustified decision to deliberately contaminate the Pacific Ocean with radioactive wastes."
The dilemma of how to dispose of the water is one ten years in the making. In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan killed more than 19,000 people and caused three of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down, The New York Times explained. This resulted in the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and the cleanup efforts persist more than a decade later.
To keep the damaged reactors from melting down, cool water is flushed through them and then filtered to remove all radioactive material except for tritium. Up until now, the wastewater has been stored on site, but the government says the facility will run out of storage room next year. Water builds up at 170 tons per day, and there are now around 1.25 million tons stored in more than 1,000 tanks.
The government now plans to begin releasing the water into the ocean in two years time, according to a decision approved by cabinet ministers Tuesday. The process is expected to take decades.
"On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release," the government said in a statement reported by NPR.
Opposition to the move partly involves a lack of trust around what is actually in the water, as NPR reported. Both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, say that the water only contains tritium, which cannot be separated from hydrogen and is only dangerous to humans in large amounts.
"But it turned out that the water contains more radioactive materials. But they didn't disclose that information before," Friends of the Earth Japan campaigner Ayumi Fukakusa told NPR. "That kind of attitude is not honest to people. They are making distrust by themselves."
In February, for example, a rockfish shipment was stopped when a sample caught near Fukushima tested positive for unsafe levels of cesium.
This incident also illustrates why local fishing communities oppose the release. Fish catches are already only 17.5 percent of what they were before the disaster, and the community worries the release of the water will make it impossible for them to sell what they do catch. They also feel the government went against its promises by deciding to release the water.
"They told us that they wouldn't release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen," fishery cooperative leader Kanji Tachiya told national broadcaster NHK, as CBS News reported. "We can't back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally."
Japan's neighbors also questioned the move. China called it "extremely irresponsible," and South Korea asked for a meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Seoul in response.
The U.S. State Department, however, said that it trusted Japan's judgement.
"In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards," the department said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
But environmentalists argue that the government could have found a way to continue storing waste.
"Rather than using the best available technology to minimize radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option, dumping the water into the Pacific Ocean," Greenpeace's Suzuki said.
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Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier is referred to as the doomsday glacier because every year it contributes four percent to global sea level rise and acts as a stopper for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If the glacier were to collapse and take the sheet with it, that would raise global sea levels by around 10 feet. Now, a study published in Science Advances on April 9 warns that there is more warm water circling below the glacier than previously believed, making that collapse more likely.
"Our observations show warm water impinging from all sides on pinning points critical to ice-shelf stability, a scenario that may lead to unpinning and retreat," the study authors wrote. Pinning points are areas where the ice connects with the bedrock that provides stability, Earther explained.
The new paper is based on a 2019 expedition where an autonomous submarine named Ran explored the area beneath the glacier in order to measure the strength, salinity, oxygen content and temperature of the ocean currents that move beneath it, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration explained in a press release.
"These were the first measurements ever performed beneath the ice front of Thwaites glacier," Anna Wåhlin, lead author and University of Gothenburg oceanography professor, explained in the press release. "Global sea level is affected by how much ice there is on land, and the biggest uncertainty in the forecasts is the future evolution of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet."
This isn't the first instance revealing the presence of warm water beneath the glacier. In January 2020, researchers drilled a bore hole through the glacier and recorded temperature readings of more than two degrees Celsius above freezing, EcoWatch reported at the time.
However, Ran's measurements were taken earlier and allow scientists to understand the warmer water's movement in more detail. Scientists now know that water as warm as 1.05 degrees Celsius is circulating around the glacier's vulnerable pinning points.
"The worry is that this water is coming into direct contact with the underside of the ice shelf at the point where the ice tongue and shallow seafloor meet," Alastair Graham, study co-author and University of Southern Florida associate professor of geological oceanography, told Earther. "This is the last stronghold for Thwaites and once it unpins from the sea bed at its very front, there is nothing else for the ice shelf to hold onto. That warm water is also likely mixing in and around the grounding line, deep into the cavity, and that means the glacier is also being attacked at its feet where it is resting on solid rock."
While this sounds grim, the fact that researchers were able to obtain the data is crucial for understanding and predicting the impacts of the climate crisis.
"The good news is that we are now, for the first time, collecting data that will enable us to model the dynamics of Thwaite's glacier. This data will help us better calculate ice melting in the future. With the help of new technology, we can improve the models and reduce the great uncertainty that now prevails around global sea level variations," Wåhlin said in the press release.
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By Jessica Corbett
Lead partners of a global consortium of news outlets that aims to improve reporting on the climate emergency released a statement on Monday urging journalists everywhere to treat their coverage of the rapidly heating planet with the same same level of urgency and intensity as they have the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Covering Climate Now (CCNow) was co-founded in 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation in association with The Guardian and WNYC, over 460 media outlets — including Common Dreams — with a combined reach of two billion people have become partner organizations.
CCNow and eight of those partners are now inviting media outlets to sign on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which begins: "It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here. This is a statement of science, not politics."
The statement notes that a growing number of scientists are warning of the "climate emergency," from James Hansen, formerly of NASA, to the nearly 14,000 scientists from over 150 countries who have endorsed an emergency declaration.
"Why 'emergency'? Because words matter," the CCNow statement explains. "To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could 'render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable,' warned a recent Scientific American article."
CCNow's initiative comes after U.S. government scientists said last week that "carbon dioxide levels are now higher than at anytime in the past 3.6 million years," with 2020 featuring a global surface average for CO2 of 412.5 parts per million (PPM) — which very likely would have been higher if not for the pandemic.
As Common Dreams reported last week, amid rising atmospheric carbon and inadequate emissions reduction plans, an international coalition of 70 health professional and civil society groups called on world leaders to learn from the pandemic and "make health a central focus of national climate policies."
"The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that health must be part and parcel of every government policy — and as recovery plans are drawn up this must apply to climate policy," said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.
CCNow also points to the public health crisis as a learning opportunity, describing the media's handling of it as "a useful model," considering that "guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example)."
"We need the same commitment to the climate story," the statement emphasizes.
Journalism should reflect what science says. https://t.co/MCbSRQMFch— The Nation (@The Nation)1618240621.0
CCNow executive director Mark Hertsgaard echoed that message Monday in The Nation, for which he serves as environment correspondent. He also addressed reservations that some reporters may have about supporting such a statement:
As journalists ourselves, we understand why some of our colleagues are cautious about initiatives like this Climate Emergency Statement, but we ask that they hear us out. Journalists rightly treasure our editorial independence, regarding it as essential to our credibility. To some of us, the term "climate emergency" may sound like advocacy or even activism — as if we're taking sides in a public dispute rather than simply reporting on it.
But the only side we're taking here is the side of science. As journalists, we must ground our coverage in facts. We must describe reality as accurately as we can, undeterred by how our reporting may appear to partisans of any stripe and unintimidated by efforts to deny science or otherwise spin facts.
According to Hertsgaard, "Signing the Climate Emergency Statement is a way for journalists and news outlets to alert their audiences that they will do justice to that story."
"But whether a given news outlet makes a public declaration by signing the statement," he added, "is less important than whether the outlet's coverage treats climate change like the emergency that scientists say it is."
Editor's Note: Common Dreams has signed on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which can be read in full below:
COVERING CLIMATE NOW STATEMENT ON THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY:
Journalism should reflect what the science says: the climate emergency is here.It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here.
This is a statement of science, not politics.
Thousands of scientists — including James Hansen, the NASA scientist who put the problem on the public agenda in 1988, and David King and Hans Schellnhuber, former science advisers to the British and German governments, respectively — have said humanity faces a "climate emergency."
Why "emergency"? Because words matter. To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could "render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable," warned a recent Scientific American article.
The media's response to Covid-19 provides a useful model. Guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example).
We need the same commitment to the climate story.
We, the undersigned, invite journalists and news organizations everywhere to add your name to this Covering Climate Now statement on the climate emergency.
- Covering Climate Now
- Scientific American
- Columbia Journalism Review
- The Nation
- The Guardian
- Noticias Telemundo
- Al Jazeera English
- Asahi Shimbun
- La Repubblica
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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Scientists consider plastic pollution one of the "most pressing environmental and social issues of the 21st century," but so far, microplastic research has mostly focused on the impact on rivers and oceans.
Plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces until it becomes microscopic and gets swept up into the atmosphere, where it rides the jet stream and travels across continents, the Cornell Chronicle reported. Researchers discovered this has led to a global plastic cycle as microplastics permeate the environment, according to The Guardian.
"We found a lot of legacy plastic pollution everywhere we looked; it travels in the atmosphere and it deposits all over the world," Janice Brahney, lead author of the study and Utah State University assistant professor of natural resources, told the Cornell Chronicle. "This plastic is not new from this year. It's from what we've already dumped into the environment over several decades."
In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tested the most likely sources of more than 300 samples of airborne microplastics from 11 sites across the western U.S. To their surprise, the researchers found that almost none of the atmospheric microplastics came from plastic waste in cities and towns. "It just didn't work out that way," Professor Natalie Mahowald from Cornell University, who was part of the research team, told The Guardian.
It turns out that 84 percent of atmospheric microplastics came from roads, 11 percent from oceans and five percent from agricultural soil dust, the scientists wrote.
"We did the modeling to find out the sources, not knowing what the sources might be," Mahowald told the Cornell Chronicle. "It's amazing that this much plastic is in the atmosphere at that level, and unfortunately accumulating in the oceans and on land and just recirculating and moving everywhere, including remote places."
The scientists say the level of plastic pollution is expected to increase, raising "questions on the impact of accumulating plastics in the atmosphere on human health. The inhalation of particles can be irritating to lung tissue and lead to serious diseases," The Guardian reported.
The study coincides with other recent reports by researchers, who confirmed the existence of microplastics in New Zealand and Moscow, where airborne plastics are turning up in remote parts of snowy Siberia.
In the most recent study, scientists also learned that plastic particles were more likely to be blown from fields than roads in Africa and Asia, The Guardian reported.
As plastic production increases every year, the scientists stressed that there remains "large uncertainties in the transport, deposition, and source attribution of microplastics," and wrote that further research should be prioritized.
"What we're seeing right now is the accumulation of mismanaged plastics just going up. Some people think it's going to increase by tenfold [per decade]," Mahowald told The Guardian. "But maybe we could solve this before it becomes a huge problem, if we manage our plastics better, before they accumulate in the environment and swirl around everywhere."
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By Michel Penke
More than every second person in the world now has a cellphone, and manufacturers are rolling out bigger, better, slicker models all the time. Many, however, have a bloody history.
Though made in large part of plastic, glass, ceramics, gold and copper, they also contain critical resources. The gallium used for LEDs and the camera flash, the tantalum in capacitors and indium that powers the display were all pulled from the ground — at a price for nature and people.
"Mining raw materials is always problematic, both with regard to human rights and ecology," said Melanie Müller, raw materials expert of the German think tank SWP. "Their production process is pretty toxic."
The gallium and indium in many phones comes from China or South Korea, the tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda. All in, such materials comprise less than ten grams of a phone's weight. But these grams finance an international mining industry that causes radioactive earth dumps, poisoned groundwater and Indigenous population displacement.
Environmental Damage: 'Nature Has Been Overexploited'
The problem is that modern technologies don't work without what are known as critical raw materials. Collectively, solar panels, drones, 3D printers and smartphone contain as many as 30 of these different elements sourced from around the globe. A prime example is lithium from Chile, which is essential in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles.
"No one, not even within the industry, would deny that mining lithium causes enormous environmental damage," Müller explained, in reference to the artificial lakes companies create when flushing the metal out of underground brine reservoirs. "The process uses vast amounts of water, so you end up with these huge flooded areas where the lithium settles."
This means of extraction results in the destruction and contamination of the natural water system. Unique plants and animals lose access to groundwater and watering holes. There have also been reports of freshwater becoming salinated due to extensive acidic waste water during lithium mining.
But lithium is not the only raw material that causes damage. Securing just one ton of rare earth elements produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste, and has devastated large regions of China, said Günther Hilpert, head of the Asia Research Division of the German think tank SWP.
He says companies there have adopted a process of spraying acid over the mining areas in order to separate the rare earths from other ores, and that mined areas are often abandoned after excavation.
"They are no longer viable for agricultural use," Hilpert said. "Nature has been overexploited."
China is not the only country with low environmental mining standards and poor resource governance. In Madagascar, for example, a thriving illegal gem and metal mining sector has been linked to rainforest depletion and destruction of natural lemur habitats.
States like Madagascar, Rwanda and the DRC score poorly on the Environmental Performance Index that ranks 180 countries for their effort on factors including conservation, air quality, waste management and emissions. Environmentalists are therefore particularly concerned that these countries are mining highly toxic materials like beryllium, tantalum and cobalt.
But it is not only nature that suffers from the extraction of high-demand critical raw materials.
"It is a dirty, toxic, partly radioactive industry," Hilpert said. "China, for example, has never really cared about human rights when it comes to achieving production targets."
Dirty, Toxic, Radioactive: Working in the Mining Sector
One of the most extreme examples is Baotou, a Chinese city in Inner Mongolia, where rare earth mining poisoned surrounding farms and nearby villages, causing thousands of people to leave the area.
In 2012, The Guardian described a toxic lake created in conjunction with rare earth mining as "a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world."
Local residents reported health issues including aching legs, diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems, The Guardian wrote.
South Africa has also been held up for turning a blind eye to the health impacts of mining.
"The platinum sector in South Africa has been criticized for performing very poorly on human rights — even within the raw materials sector," Müller said.
In 2012, security forces killed 34 miners who had been protesting poor working conditions and low wages at a mine owned by the British company Lonmin. What became known as the "Marikana massacre" triggered several spontaneous strikes across the country's mining sector.
Müller says miners can still face exposure to acid drainage — a frequent byproduct of platinum mining — that can cause chemical burns and severe lung damage. Though this can be prevented by a careful waste system.
Some progress was made in 2016 when the South African government announced plans to make mining companies pay $800 million (€679 million) for recycling acid mine water. But they didn't all comply. In 2020, activists sued Australian-owned mining company Mintails and the government to cover the cost of environmental cleanup.
Another massive issue around mining is water consumption. Since the extraction of critical raw materials is very water intensive, drought prone countries such as South Africa, have witnessed an increase in conflicts over supply.
For years, industry, government and the South African public debated – without a clear agreement – whether companies should get privileged access to water and how much the population may suffer from shortages.
Mining in Brazil: Replacing Nature, People, Land Rights
Beyond the direct health and environmental impact of mining toxic substances, quarrying critical raw materials destroys livelihoods, as developments in Brazil demonstrate.
"Brazil is the major worldwide niobium producer and reserves in [the state of] Minas Gerais would last more than 200 years [at the current rate of demand]," said Juliana Siqueira-Gay, environmental engineer and Ph.D. student at the University of São Paulo.
While the overall number of niobium mining requests is stagnating, the share of claims for Indigenous land has skyrocketed from 3 to 36 percent within one year. If granted, 23 percent of the Amazon forest and the homeland of 222 Indigenous groups could fall victim to deforestation in the name of mining, a study by Siqueira-Gay finds.
In early 2020, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a bill which would allow corporations to develop areas populated by Indigenous communities in the future. The law has not yet entered into force, but "this policy could have long-lasting negative effects on Brazil's socio-biodiversity," said Siqueira-Gay.
One example are the niobium reserves in Seis Lagos, in Brazil's northeast, which could be quarried to build electrolytic capacitors for smartphones.
"They overlap the Balaio Indigenous land and it would cause major impacts in Indigenous communities by clearing forests responsible for providing food, raw materials and regulating the local climate," Siqueira-Gay explained.
She says scientific good practice guidelines offer a blueprint for sustainable mining that adheres to human rights and protects forests. Quarries in South America — and especially Brazil — funded by multilaterial banks like the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group have to follow these guidelines, Siqueira-Gay said.
They force companies to develop sustainable water supply, minimize acid exposure and re-vegetate mined surfaces. "First, negative impacts must be avoided, then minimized and at last compensated — not the other way around."
Reposted with permission from DW.