The International Energy Agency has announced that in the next three decades we will have to manufacture and deploy millions of solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles worldwide, if we want to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 or even 2 degrees Celsius.
Fortunately, this technology is constantly improving and becoming cheaper. However, the biggest advantage of most environmentally friendly technologies is that they require materials that are more environmentally durable than those used in the technology that will replace them.
The Next Web has published a report in which it talks about the cost of switching to green technology on the environment; Wind turbines, for example, require iron and zinc for corrosion-resistant steel and the engines needed to capture energy from the wind. Electric cars need lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese for their batteries, as well as neodymium and other rare earth materials for their engines.
Therefore, building many of these devices will require large amounts of specific materials, and many of them are difficult to mine. Some of it may come from recycling, but for many materials – such as lithium – there is not enough material used today that can be recycled for future use, and rather most of it should come from mining.
This means that if low-carbon technology is used around the world, we will have to face consequences or considerations of a different kind.
For example, a global shift to electric vehicles could damage forest ecosystems for access to lithium or cobalt.
An essential consideration
One of the major trade-offs between current technology and future green technology is the environmental damage associated with mining and refining materials.
Examples include aluminum, which is essential for making frames for solar panels; Global aluminum production accounts for 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and with studies estimating future emissions, it could reach 1.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050, twice the annual emissions of aircraft.
However, there is potential to significantly reduce these emissions, and switching the electricity source for aluminum processing from fossil fuels to hydropower could reduce emissions of new aluminum by up to 75%. However, what is needed to achieve this is better financial incentives for the mining sector to use renewable energy.
brine pools for lithium mining
The damage in the acquisition of this material is not limited to the emissions that result from it, as the extraction of lithium from brine requires – as is the case in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile – boreholes in salt plains around the brine solution (salt water) to the surface, then evaporate the water using light Sun to leave potassium, manganese, borax and lithium salts.
There is controversy over the extent to which this brine is classified as water, and thus the extent to which its exploitation will affect water-handicapped (i.e. water-scarce) regions such as Chile. For those who argue that it should be classified as water, its extraction leads to unnecessary water scarcity and damage to fragile ecosystems.
Even from the point of view of those who argue that it is not water due to its high concentration of minerals, the long-term consequences of its extraction remain unknown.
Cobalt (another biomaterial used in electric car batteries) is mostly mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A large but unknown amount of cobalt is mined in mines, where children are often used, with accusations of unsafe working conditions, poor safety records and exploitative employment contracts.
These considerations are not a justification for avoiding action against climate change, nor for refusing to build the technology we need to decarbonize other systems. However, this justifies the close focus on how to obtain the materials needed to make an environmentally friendly technology.
Improving the recycling of old products and waste materials is an essential part of this. But the huge increase in demand for these materials is due to the constant shift of low carbon ratio in addition to the increasing wealth of consumers all over the world; This means that this alone is unlikely to be enough to avoid widespread damage to the ecosystem.
To help reduce this demand, we need to increase energy efficiency in our homes and businesses so that they require less energy in the first place.
Moving away from private transportation by investing in public transportation will also help reduce the demand for mining. Without such action, a truly sustainable low-carbon transition would be impossible.