books social justice sustainability

Book review: Volt Rush, by Henry Sanderson

Advocates of the energy transition often talk up the potential of cleaner technologies – the benefits of unpolluted air, the more democratic nature of renewable energy, the quiet of electric cars. Sometimes this can border on the utopian, but it’s important to remember that this is about potential, not promise. There are many ways that the green transition could turn exploitative and unethical – and that’s why it’s so vital to advocate specifically for a just transition.

Henry Sanderson‘s book is all about the “ecological shadows” created by the green revolution – where extractive industries will claw out the resources needed for the future, and who stands to gain or lose. A former Financial Times journalist and minerals industry expert, Sanderson has been to the key locations and spoken to the miners, the middlemen and the moguls. The book is a useful guide to the geopolitics of the energy transition, the scramble for resources, and who is likely to be left behind.

The book starts with a short history of electrification, particularly cars. The swift rise of electric vehicles has prompted a stampede for the resources for all those batteries. Fortunes are being made, by those with either the foresight to have seen the transition coming, or who are lucky enough or corrupt enough to be in charge of mineral rights.

Among those with foresight is China, which poured billions into a decade-long industrial strategy to dominate the technologies of the future. It is no accident that China has so many world-leading solar, battery and EV companies. Targeted support from the government allowed China to get to scale on these technologies. Much of the world will benefit from that, but plenty of others will be kicking themselves for seeing the opportunity too late, or just not being able to compete with the weight of the Chinese state.

China didn’t just invest in the technologies, but also the resources to create them. Again and again in the book we read about how Chinese firms have a grip on the extraction and processing of vital materials such as lithium, or nickel. One thing that the book does well is introduce some of the entrepreneurs involved in this – people like lithium kingpin Wang Xiaoshen or battery billionaire Robin Zeng. Without naming any names, there are certain mouthy billionaires who get more than their fair share of the credit for bringing clean technologies to market.

There are plenty of more sinister stories too. There are fascinating sections on cobalt in the Congo and copper in Chile, detailing who the main players are, and where the ethical questions arise. I often read about how resources can be captured by corrupt elites without really understanding how that happened. Sanderson explains in detail how certain key players were able to use personal connections to dictators to get themselves positions of power, parlay them into mineral rights and maintain control long after the dictatorship itself ends. There are some deeply unsavoury characters making their billions from the green transition.

One thing that I found interesting is that extractive industries have always exploited land and people. The history of the oil and gas industry is also replete with war, plunder and dispossession. We often don’t hear about those issues because they are in the past, or they are ongoing but no longer news. The rush into lithium or cobalt is shining a light on the mining industry, and that’s a good thing. We don’t want to repeat the injustices of the past. As the book describes, the attention has already forced companies to look for solutions, whether that is raising standards at mines, looking for alternative materials, or investing in circular economy solutions.

The media loves a ‘gotcha’ story about the ‘dirty little secrets’ of EVs and other green technologies. But these shouldn’t be secret – we should be talking more about them, because it’s only by understanding the problems that we can avoid them. Future technologies can be fairer and more ethical than the fossil fuel age – that wouldn’t be hard – but it won’t happen by default. We need to engage constructively with the difficult questions. As Sanderson writes, “we shouldn’t be hostile to green technologies but we shouldn’t be naive either.”

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