Kazakhstan’s Growing Role in the Global Energy Transition May Come at a Cost to Local Communities

The country’s ambitious export plans for copper and other products could perpetuate the environmental degradation that has plagued Zhezkazgan for decades

Kazakhstan’s Growing Role in the Global Energy Transition May Come at a Cost to Local Communities
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines Magazine

On Oct. 28, 2023, Kazakhstan was rocked by news of a coal-mining accident in the central Karaganda region that killed 46 people, making it the deadliest incident in post-Soviet Kazakhstan’s mining industry. It was also a tragic reminder of the cost associated with dependence on coal — one of the dirtiest fuel sources — to meet the country’s energy needs. Approximately 70% of Kazakhstan’s electricity comes from this carbon-intensive fossil fuel, much of which is mined using outdated Soviet infrastructure.

This accident came on the heels of a rather different event involving Kazakhstan’s energy industry. Just two days before and some 280 miles southwest of Karaganda in the country’s most important copper mining town of Zhezkazgan, the regional governor, Berik Abdygaliuly, signed a memorandum with the Chinese state-owned company SinoHydro and Kazakhstan’s TechnoGroupService LLP to build wind turbine towers.

The proposed plant is set to bring $30 million in investment and 230 new jobs to Zhezkazgan. The project includes a second phase, in which a wind farm with a capacity of 1 gigawatt will be built in the nearby Zhanaarka district; enough to power the entire Ulytau region, where Zhezkazgan and Zhanaarka are located, with a population of 220,000. It is anticipated that subsequent phases of the project will bring further investment, in excess of $1 billion. For a region that has long relied on the copper mining industry and has paid the price of decades of environmental degradation and poor health indicators among its residents, this project could be transformative. The consensus among the Chinese investors and their Kazakhstani partners is that Zhezkazgan can become a new hub for manufacturing “clean” energy equipment.

But there is a critical gap between manufacturing renewable energy equipment and transforming Zhezkazgan into a healthy, sustainable environment that supports the people who live there. While Kazakhstan has not shied away from declaring ambitious climate goals and positioning itself as a key player in the global energy transition, the industrial legacy of this town, along with others like it, means the path to a bright and prosperous green future is neither simple nor straightforward.

As the climate crisis deepens, countries pursuing energy transition are hungry for minerals. Decarbonization requires substantial scaling-up of renewable energy and electric vehicle (EV) deployment, which will put an unprecedented strain on Earth’s mineral resources. Given that the gap between supply and demand in global mineral markets keeps growing, and that China currently dominates the global supply chains of critical minerals, many countries are actively exploring new frontiers to secure supplies.

One such frontier is Kazakhstan, a country abundant in mineral wealth. Mining is a pillar of Kazakhstan’s economy, contributing an estimated 17% of the country’s gross domestic product. (For comparison, mining totals 1.9% of U.S. GDP.) Mineral and metal products accounted for 78% of Kazakhstan’s exports in 2023. Apart from fossil fuels, for which Kazakhstan is a major global supplier, the steppe nation is also endowed with abundant ferrous and nonferrous metals essential for renewable energy equipment. Kazakhstan’s production and reserves of copper — a core material in solar panels, wind turbines, power cables and energy storage systems, such as EV batteries — both place it in the top 15 countries globally, and the metal accounted for about 8% of its exports in 2021.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has enhanced Kazakhstan’s appeal as a global supplier of minerals. International players in the hunt for raw materials for their decarbonization dreams have ramped up efforts to engage this nation, the largest in Central Asia. In May 2023, the European Union (EU) established a strategic partnership with Kazakhstan on sustainable raw materials, batteries and renewable hydrogen. Critical mineral supply was a key issue of discussion during President Joe Biden’s meeting with the five Central Asian leaders at the C5+1 presidential summit in September 2023. (Underscoring the significance of the meeting, this was the first time in the summit’s eight-year history that a U.S. president attended.) And of course, China, under the Belt and Road Initiative, has invested heavily in Kazakhstan’s mineral resources. Besides the project in Zhezkazgan, in May 2023 the Ministry of Energy of Kazakhstan signed a quadripartite memorandum with two Chinese companies and one Kazakhstani company on the construction of a wind farm in Zhambyl Region together with factories for the production of nacelles (casings), towers and blades for wind turbines.

There is little doubt that Kazakhstan, with a population of approximately 19.5 million, stands to gain economic benefits as well as regional influence from these emerging partnerships. The administration of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev appears eager to furnish other countries with the minerals and metals needed for the energy transition. Kazakhstan’s minerals are exported to the EU, China, Russia, South Korea and the United States, among others. In 2022, Kazakhstan boasted that it would be able to supply the EU with all the critical raw materials it needs. It currently produces 19 of the 34 critical raw materials the EU lists as essential to its economy and exports some of these to Europe in large quantities, including copper, phosphorus, aluminum and chromium. According to the Diplomatic Service of the European Union, the EU’s strategic partnership with Kazakhstan on raw materials is part of its “policy to ensure access to a secure, diversified, affordable and sustainable supply.” Unlike the trade in fossil fuels, trade in the minerals required for manufacturing renewable energy equipment can be readily labeled as green or sustainable.

But the “green” energy label applied to projects such as that in Zhezkazgan disguises the environmental pitfalls of this investment. Although wind power is widely considered an environmentally friendly source of energy, the manufacturing process for wind turbines is not. Wind turbine towers, for example, are made almost exclusively of steel and concrete, both of which are carbon-intensive, “dirty” materials. Copper is also an essential component of wind turbine towers. Such a plant will mean intensified mineral extraction and metal production that may exacerbate existing ecological and social problems: water, soil and air pollution; mining-related diseases; high levels of industrial injuries; and a lack of economic diversification. The idea that foreign capital and scaled-up renewable energy deployment in Kazakhstan might offset the environmental and societal burdens of mining and metallurgy remains uncertain. For Zhezkazgan, whose past has been shaped by copper deposits in its vicinity in ways closely associated with various forms of colonization and appropriation, there is a risk of history repeating itself.

Peter Rychkov, an imperial Russian bureaucrat and geographer, recorded the presence of abundant copper ore around present-day Zhezkazgan as early as 1760. “There were numerous pine trees and birches, as well as copper deposits,” wrote Rychkov in his scholarly account of the region, “Topography of the Orenburg Province.” At a time when the Russian Empire was thirsty for precious metals to export to Europe, mineral ores on the Kazakh steppe became an important driver of Russia’s expansion into Central Asia. For the Russian Empire’s industrialists, building mines and factories was essential to the well-being of the state and society, as well as an effective measure to tame the nomads on the steppe.

Imperial expansion, however, was protracted. Eight decades passed before the copper ores Rychkov described were officially entered into the Russian imperial registry as the Dzhezkazgan copper deposit, using the Russian spelling. (The Kazakh spelling of the mine and the city were reclaimed after the collapse of the Soviet Union.) Fittingly, “Zhezkazgan” means “place for digging copper” in the Kazakh language.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that substantive industrial operations in Zhezkazgan began under a British-owned company, Spasskoe JSC. These earliest industrial endeavors were soon interrupted by wars and revolutions sweeping the Eurasian continent, and following the Bolshevik takeover of Central Asia in 1918, the region became integrated into the Soviet model of development, with highly centralized planning of how resources were mobilized and an emphasis on heavy industry, especially after 1928, when a short revival of the market economy and private initiatives under the New Economic Policy ended.

Soviet scientists conducted a series of geological expeditions in Kazakhstan and discovered more mineral ores. “Every year our geologists and farmers find massive interesting [mineral] samples. There are so many of them that there’s nowhere to put them,” noted a leading geologist in Kazakhstan in 1940. These discoveries led to the establishment of a working village near the Zhezkazgan deposit, which in 1954 gained city status and was named after the mine. “Dzhezkazgan’s products go to the enterprises in the Urals, Ukraine, Georgia, and the Far East. This young steppe city has a big future,” a Soviet journalist wrote in 1955. Zhezkazgan’s role as a raw material supplier was established. Under the Soviet system this was framed as socialist internationalism; today it’s globalization.

In 1956, Soviet authorities declared a plan to transform Zhezkazgan into the center of nonferrous metallurgy in the USSR. Two years later, industrial facilities in the Zhezkazgan region were reorganized into the “Dzhezkazgan Mining and Metallurgical Complex,” consisting of an ore management board, a copper smelting plant and a machine-building plant. This Soviet model of the urban industrial complex compressed human and natural resources into a minimal space to maximize productivity and exploitability. Cities, villages, mines, plants and people were integrated into a single complex. Workers slept next to mines; factories stood across from apartments. Within the complex, copper could complete its full life cycle from ores to metal products, just as people might serve the mine from birth to death. Ironically, this socialist industrial triumph, a symbol of the friendship of peoples, was largely built upon the exploitation of forced labor from the Soviet gulag system.

By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, Zhezkazgan had grown into a crucial industrial center in Kazakhstan with a population of about 100,000. During the post-Soviet waves of privatization, a private company, Kazakhmys Corp., succeeded in taking over almost all of Zhezkazgan’s industrial holdings. It is now the largest copper producer in Kazakhstan and one of the country’s top taxpayers. It controls not only mines and plants but also the Zhezkazgan Central Heating Plant (CHP), which provides electricity, heat and hot water to the entire city. The president of Kazakhmys, Vladimir Kim, epitomizes the post-Soviet oligarch. A former Soviet Communist Party bureaucrat and a close ally of the first president of independent Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kim was first appointed managing director and CEO of Zhezkazgantsvetmet JSC, the core subsidiary to Kazakhmys, in 1995. He was elected chair of Kazakhmys in October 2005, when the company was listed on the London Stock Exchange. Forbes Kazakhstan lists Kim as the wealthiest person in the country.

The changes in political and economic structures, however, have not led to improvements in residents’ quality of life. Rather, under Kazakhmys, Zhezkazgan seems to have become worse. According to an environmental assessment conducted by the Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources of Kazakhstan in 2022, the air quality in Zhezkazgan is among the worst in the country. The Kara Kengir River that flows through Zhezkazgan is among the most contaminated water sources. The assessment ranks the river’s water quality as “above level 5,” which means the water is not suitable for any use.

The city’s geographical layout, which has largely maintained the Soviet urban configuration, helps to explain the severe environmental problems. Residential areas in the city remain situated close to industrial sites. Kazakhstan’s largest copper smelter, a major source of pollution, is located just across from a residential block. A huge tailings pond sits approximately 7 miles from Zhezkazgan’s city center and next to the river. Decades of intensive mining operations around Zhezkazgan have rendered the region particularly vulnerable to geomorphological risks, such as human-caused seismicity, soil and vegetation degradation, and pollution and depletion of surface and groundwater.

Copper mines, quarries and metallurgical plants have stood next to Zhezkazgan residents’ homes for decades, and the accumulated health effects are striking. Zhezkazgan’s overall mortality and death rates from cancers and circulatory and respiratory diseases are much higher than the national average. As of 2020, the city’s overall mortality rate passed 3%. More than 250 deaths from cancers, around 800 from circulatory system diseases and almost 400 from respiratory diseases were registered in Zhezkazgan per 100,000 people. In comparison, Kazakhstan’s overall mortality rate in 2020 was lower than 1%. For the same year, per 100,000 people, the country recorded on average fewer than 100 deaths attributed to cancers, 200 related to circulatory system diseases and approximately 100 associated with respiratory diseases.

“As an ordinary resident of the city, I see how people get sick and leave silently,” said Zhezkazgan resident Zhurshibai Lekerov. “In general, they vote with their feet because they no longer believe that anything will change. Life is given once. Time flies, but you can’t get your youth back.”

Apart from diseases, industrial workers in Zhezkazgan also face the risk of injury or death from industrial accidents. Much like the miners who died in the Karaganda fire in October 2023, workers in Zhezkazgan are confronted with unfavorable working conditions and outdated infrastructure, and their exposure to harmful substances, such as dust and aerosols that result from mining, is not monitored. Just a few days after signing the memorandum on the new plant, on Nov. 5, 2023, a 39-year-old supervisor was crushed to death by falling rock while working in the East Zhezkazgan copper mine. Two weeks later, a 43-year-old worker was pinched to death by a conveyor belt at a metal-processing plant in Zhezkazgan. Kazakhmys is notorious for its high number of industrial injuries. According to Alikhan Smailov, the prime minister of Kazakhstan, industrial injuries at Kazakhmys surged more than threefold from 2022 to 2023. The exact number, however, remains undisclosed — perhaps a telling sign of Kazakhmys’ lack of transparency and accountability regarding workers’ safety.

Despite the risks, not everyone is willing, let alone able, to leave. Mining does not only mean health hazards, ecological degradation and safety risks. It also means material benefits: The average income of Zhezkazgan residents is significantly higher than the Ulytau regional and Kazakhstani national averages. In particular, industrial workers in Zhezkazgan, including office workers and managers as well as those working in the mines, are among the most highly paid groups. These workers, most of whom are men, earn an average monthly salary of $1,350, nearly double the national average in Kazakhstan.

The city of Zhezkazgan is also reliant on the lucrative mining industry: Industrial production accounted for 86.4% of Zhezkazgan’s GDP in 2022, and much of that is thanks to Kazakhmys. As the owner of almost all of Zhezkazgan’s industrial assets, Kazakhmys controls not only the local flows of raw materials and the labor force but also everyday necessities like electricity and hot water. Any new investors coming to Zhezkazgan will likely have to deal with Kazakhmys in one way or another. The lack of economic diversity combined with the company’s monopolistic control over Zhezkazgan’s copper industry and infrastructure reinforces the region’s role as a mineral supplier as well as the environmental and human toll associated with it. The industry feeds the people; the people serve the industry. And this binding relationship has endured for decades.

It is uncertain whether SinoHydro’s project in Zhezkazgan will do anything to change this. The march of SinoHydro — a global leader in clean energy investments — into Zhezkazgan cannot be understood outside the context of the region’s rich mineral resources or China’s booming demand for copper. According to a 2023 report by the Global Energy Monitor, China holds more than one-third of the world’s total cumulative installed capacity for wind and solar energy, and copper is a vital component of both technologies. The centrality of copper in SinoHydro’s investment in Zhezkazgan also means that Chinese investors would need to rely on the local industrial infrastructure and potentially reinforce Kazakhmys’ dominance in the region.

Notably, this is not SinoHydro’s first venture into Kazakhstan for copper. In 2022 the company successfully secured a substantial $995 million contract with Kazdelltom Mining Co. for copper mining operations in the country’s western Aktobe Region, approximately 900 miles from Zhezkazgan. The abundance of copper ores and established industrial infrastructure, including a trained workforce, make Zhezkazgan an attractive option for setting up manufacturing processes. SinoHydro’s entry into this monotown reflects China’s broader strategy to dominate green energy supplies.

Although Zhezkazgan’s residents appear tied to the copper industry, they do not quietly submit to the status quo. In August 2023, more than 100 miners from Kazakhmys went on strike, putting forward a list of 15 demands for the company, including improving working conditions, opening up communication channels for workers, replacing old mining equipment, and enhancing paid time off and disability, medical and financial benefits. Following negotiations between representatives of the Kazakhmys Corp. and the protesting miners, the company announced, without specifying the details, that part of the striking workers’ demands were satisfied. Kazakhmys alleged to the public that the strikers would not be punished — a significant point to make in a country that is not known to protect workers’ rights — and mining work continued.

Others have demanded more fundamental change. In November 2023, a group of retired workers from Zhezkazgan’s mining industry signed a letter to Kazakhstan’s political leaders, asking the government to reevaluate the consequences of the privatization of Zhezkazgan’s copper industry by the Kazakhmys Corp. and resolve the existing environmental and social issues caused by the company.

“We can no longer indifferently watch how one of the best and most profitable enterprises in the country continues to be plundered by a small group of people, adding to the lists of Forbes magazine, at a time when basic social issues have not been resolved at the Corporation’s enterprises for years, such as the provision of housing and clean drinking water, ecological problems, updating of technological equipment, and health hazards,” the letter reads.

This particular strike was just one in Kazakhstan’s longer history of workers’ protests, especially in the mining industry. Tensions have centered on the continuation of precarious working conditions and low pay despite the mining industry’s immense profitability. The oil workers’ protest in Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan in 2011 stands out for its violent repression and casts a long shadow over labor rights in the country. According to official data, 17 civilians were killed and more than 100 protesters and others were injured. Apart from the western oil zone, mining regions in central Kazakhstan also frequently witnessed workers’ fights for rights and safety. In December 2017, about 700 miners from ArcelorMittal Temirtau went on strike, demanding improved working conditions and changes to the labor code in Kazakhstan. Although Kazakhstan is a member of the International Labour Organization and has laws to protect workers’ rights and allow trade unions, these are not without flaws, and Kazakh authorities have a reputation for restricting these activities and pressuring workers.

While workers’ grievances have been building up for decades, the atmosphere of reform in post-Nazarbayev Kazakhstan may have inspired former and current Kazakhmys employees to publicly raise their concerns with the government. Since the mass civil unrest at the start of 2022, known as Bloody January, Tokayev has been attempting to break with the past, including with elites considered allies of Nazarbayev. The weeklong mass protests, triggered by a sudden and significant surge in gas prices that month after state subsidies were lifted, ended with violent government crackdowns and Tokayev’s promise to reform the country and address the socioeconomic inequality lingering from the Nazarbayev era.

“The era of oligarchic capitalism is coming to an end in Kazakhstan. The era of the state’s social responsibility towards its citizens is coming,” Tokayev pledged in October 2022.

Nine months later, on July 12, 2023, Tokayev signed a new law, “On the return of illegally acquired assets to the state,” which many in Kazakhstan believe, as the letter from Zhezkazgan’s workers suggests, will contribute to the restoration of the social justice that was largely lost during the Nazarbayev era. Indeed, the government has been quick to act on this legislation. Following the tragedy in Karaganda in October 2023, Kazakh authorities announced the nationalization of ArcelorMittal Temirtau, which operates the country’s largest steel plants and several coal and ore mines, including the Kostenko mine in Karaganda where the fatal fire happened.

As one of Kazakhstan’s top enterprises, whose oligarch leader, Kim, was a close ally of Nazarbayev, Kazakhmys appears to have become a target for Tokayev’s reforms. In June 2022, Tokayev met with representatives from the Kazakhmys Corporation during his visit to Zhezkazgan. At the meeting, the company promised to allocate approximately $54.9 million in 2022 to improve infrastructure in Zhezkazgan and neighboring Satpayev as part of its commitment to corporate social responsibility. In response, Tokayev pointed out that this might not be enough. It is unclear to what extent Kazakhmys followed through on their funding promises. Kazakhmys’ official website boasts of the company’s contribution to regional welfare, spanning water supply, housing, education and health care. The company also proclaims commitments to the environment and occupational safety. But the bright photographs showcased on the Kazakhmys website contrast sharply with Zhezkazgan’s gray skies, barren landscape and frequent accidents in mines and plants.

Local state offices, however, did follow up with the company. In June 2023, the prosecutor’s office for the Ulytau region inspected the Kazakhmys Corp. in charge of Zhezkazgan’s CHP plant and identified 600 violations of industrial standards in the Zhezkazgan and Balkhash thermal power plants, for which the company was fined approximately $57,900. A month later, the Anti-Corruption Service of the Ulytau Region revealed severe problems in Kazakhmys’ management of the Zhezkazgan CHP, including ineffective use of approximately $2.2 million, systematic theft of funds intended for maintaining networks, misappropriation of wages and bonuses, and fictitious employment.

These inspections and punishments could be an indication of change under Tokayev. At the same time, for all its violations, Kazakhmys was slapped with a paltry fine of less than $60,000. It’s hardly a decisive blow to the company or the oligarchic establishment. A few affluent individuals still firmly control the majority of Kazakhstan’s wealth despite Tokayev’s promise of redistributive justice. According to Forbes Kazakhstan, the richest 50 individuals in Kazakhstan held 17.5% of the country’s total wealth in 2023. Kim, the de facto owner of Kazakhmys, retains control of $4.6 billion, despite a $400 million decrease in his fortune between 2022 and 2023. Media outlets such as OpenDemocracy, Foreign Policy, and Vlast.kz have noted that since Bloody January there has been little change in Kazakhstan’s political and economic landscapes. Tokayev’s reforms seem to focus more on cracking down on opposition figures and legitimizing his administration, rather than attending to the welfare of the public, including workers’ rights.

Yet while few can detect tangible change, promises abound. Last November, Abdygaliuly, the governor of the Ulytau region, announced a plan to transform Zhezkazgan into a new economic and tourist center by 2037. At the center of this plan lies not industrial development but the improvement of social welfare, such as the construction of public facilities and renovation of residences. Government efforts to diversify the economy and prioritize public welfare could create opportunities. But for now, this remains a plan in name only. And the plan to build wind turbine towers in Zhezkazgan offers little in the way of diversifying away from the region’s industrial base.

Tokayev’s foreign policy seems clearer than his domestic strategy: This former diplomat is trying to open up Kazakhstan to the world and make the most of the country’s abundant natural resources to form productive economic and geopolitical relationships with the rest of the world. Zhezkazgan’s copper will not remain untouched. The energy transition is the new global zeitgeist, and Kazakhstan is positioning itself to take part in one way or another. It remains uncertain how this will play out on the ground in places like Zhezkazgan, dealing with existing industrial legacies. If Kazakhstan’s role in the energy transition is limited to supplying minerals and manufacturing renewable energy equipment without improvements to occupational health, safety standards, labor rights and environmental conditions, it will perhaps make little difference.

From imperial Russia to independent Kazakhstan in 2024, Zhezkazgan’s copper has inspired, obsessed and trapped a myriad of people with varied beliefs and motivations. Whether they were Russian or British, Kazakh or Chinese, and whether they were imperialists, socialists or capitalists, the region’s resource-driven history has been tenacious. Different power structures have all prioritized mining and extraction in Zhezkazgan over the environment and workers’ health and safety. While Tokayev signals a reform agenda, the shadow of the Nazarbayev era continues to loom over Kazakhstan, and natural resources still provide a well-trodden path for a government in search of revenue. New investments in Zhezkazgan’s copper industry or changes in the ownership of assets are unlikely to address residents’ concerns over unsafe water and air, disruptions to winter heating and fatal working conditions. But the miners’ strikes and residents’ demands for better environmental and welfare protections in Zhezkazgan show that the people are not passive objects under Tokayev.

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