Climate campaigners are calling on SNP ministers to curb the demand for imported materials needed to move away from fossil fuels amid concern over human rights abuses committed overseas.

The call comes after a new report commissioned by Friends of the Earth Scotland highlights the environmental destruction being caused in faraway countries by the mining of lithium for electric car batteries and iron ore to produce steel for wind turbines.

Friends of the Earth Scotland believes the risk that “serious and extensive harm” is being done through the extraction of both materials is currently being ignored by politicians and continuing to do so could jeopardise the government’s commitment to delivering a “just transition” to renewable energy.

The report states lithium mining, in particular, has “extensive social and environmental impacts”, pointing to evidence of human rights abuses wreaked by mining companies and the rights of indigenous people being trampled where mining activities occur.

The paper also highlights that the process of lithium mining requires high volumes of water in areas where reserves are already stretched and this extra demand can limit supplies of water to local communities and wildlife.

It adds: “Common social issues include loss of land and displacement of communities, loss of livelihoods, food and water insecurities, health impacts, and safety issues for workers.

“Conflicts often arising from these issues include gross human rights abuses, including murder, torture, forced labour and slavery, threats, gender violence and militarisation.”

The paper goes on to state the mining process also has “considerable” impacts on ecosystems, is a leading cause of deforestation across the globe and generated over 100 billion tonnes of solid waste in 2019.

“Much of this waste is toxic and, in some cases, even radioactive,” the report adds. “Mining waste is usually stored permanently in tailing dams, which are often poorly constructed and maintained.

“The failure rate of tailing dams is estimated to be over 100 times higher than that of conventional water dams.”

With demand for lithium expected to increase dramatically in the run-up to 2040, Friends of the Earth Scotland is now calling on the Scottish Government to develop demand reduction strategies and focus on creating a more circular economy in which minerals are used as sparingly and efficiently as possible.

Kim Pratt, circular economy campaigner for Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “Transitioning away from fossil fuels is vital for a liveable planet, but we must not create another crisis in doing so.

“Materials like lithium and steel are essential for renewables and electric vehicles, but we can’t ignore the serious harm being caused by their extraction.

“We want to see a Scotland which takes no more resources than it needs and, when resources are taken, it’s done in a way which isn’t harming communities or nature anywhere in the world.

“The overall demand for materials must be reduced by moving Scotland to a circular economy, where materials are reused and recycled rather than being thrown away after one use, and by focusing on public services rather than private ones.

“We simply cannot replace all our current petrol and diesel cars with electric cars like for like – we need better public transport, so we don’t need as many cars overall.

“Scotland could take advantage of the large supply of scrap steel available from within our borders and our low carbon electricity grid to produce some of the greenest steel in the world.

“The Scottish Government urgently needs to create a resource justice strategy to make sure Scotland’s material use is fair and sustainable as soon as possible.”

Andy Whitmore, co-chair of London Mining Network, who researched the Unearthing Injustice paper, said: “From the deserts of the Atacama to coke ovens in Nova Scotia, our research exposes the human rights and environmental concerns that lie behind the supply chains for minerals associated with the energy transition.

“As governments focus on perceived scarcity there is not enough attention being paid to addressing those abuses, which a commitment to globally fair transition should entail.

“Proper supply chain due diligence would protect the environment, the rights of workers and of impacted communities, including free, prior and informed consent for Indigenous peoples.”

Liam Kerr, Scottish Conservative net zero, energy and transport spokesperson, said: “This is all too typical of the SNP-Green Government’s slapdash approach to a just transition to net zero.

“It’s incredible that the Scottish Government hasn’t even stopped to think where all the batteries are going to come from to support this so-called revolution."

He added: “They’re big on the rhetoric, but don’t make decisions based on the evidence. As we’ve seen with their veto on North Sea developments – now adopted by Labour – that has catastrophic implications for the economy, the environment and tens of thousands of Scottish jobs.

“And it makes delivery of their own targets far less likely. The SNP should rethink their flawed Energy Strategy and bring it in to line with real-world requirements and scientific evidence, not just their grandstanding claims.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We welcome this report and will consider its recommendations in detail.

“We are committed to bringing forward the Circular Economy Bill before summer recess 2023.

"This Bill will establish the legislative framework to support Scotland’s transition to a zero waste and circular economy; significantly increase reuse and recycling rates; and modernise and improve waste and recycling services.

“Reducing our reliance on private car use can significantly improve the places we live in and our quality of life, which is why all cars – electric as well as petrol and diesel – are included in our commitment to reduce car kilometres by 20% by 2030. 

“We are also exploring wider opportunities to make sure Scotland’s international environmental impact is sustainable, through the development of Scotland’s environment strategy.”