Green technology is not enough for the environment. We have to cut one – Low Calorie Diets Tips

If we want to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 or even 2 degrees Celsius, we need a monumental change in the way our energy and transport systems work. The International Energy Agency has stated that millions of solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles (EVs) need to be manufactured and deployed around the world over the next three decades. Fortunately, these technologies are constantly improving – and cheaper too.

However, a key characteristic of most green technologies is that they require more and more diverse materials than the technologies they replace. Wind turbines require iron and zinc for the corrosion-resistant steel and motors needed to harvest energy from the wind. And EVs require lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese for their batteries, and neodymium and other rare-earth materials for their motors.

Building many of these devices therefore requires vast amounts of specific materials, many of which are difficult to mine. Some may come from recycling, but for many materials, such as Lithium, for example, is simply not being used enough today to be recycled for future use. Instead, most must come from mining.

This means that if low-carbon technology is to be deployed globally, we must accept the less palatable consequences or trade-offs of building it. A global shift to electric vehicles, for example, may mean damaging forest ecosystems in order to gain access to lithium or cobalt.

compromises

An important trade-off is the environmental damage associated with the mining and refining of materials. An example is aluminium, which is essential for making frames for solar panels. Global aluminum production is responsible for 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and studies estimate that future emissions could reach 1.7 gigatonnes of CO₂ by 2050 – twice the annual emissions from airplanes.

However, there is potential to significantly reduce these emissions. Switching the power source for aluminum processing from fossil fuels to hydropower can reduce emissions from virgin aluminum by about 75%. But this requires better financial incentives for the mining sector to use renewable energies.

Difficulties in sourcing these materials are not limited to the emissions they generate. Extracting lithium from brine — as in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile — requires drilling holes in salt pans to bring brine (salt water) to the surface, and then evaporating the water with sunlight to produce potassium, manganese, Leaving behind borax and lithium salts.

Brine evaporation ponds at a lithium mine project in Catamarca Province, Argentina, 2021 [Photo: Anita Pouchard Serra/Bloomberg/Getty Images]

There is a debate about the extent to which this brine qualifies as water and how much its extraction therefore affects arid regions such as Chile. For those who argue that it should be classified as water, its extraction creates unnecessary water scarcity and harms fragile ecosystems. And even from the perspective 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 important material used in electric vehicle batteries, is mined primarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A large but unknown quantity of cobalt is mined by small-scale miners, who often employ children and have been accused of unsafe working conditions, poor safety standards and exploitative employment contracts.

These trade-offs do not justify avoiding action on climate change or refusing to build the technology we need to decarbonize essential systems. However, they warrant a closer focus on how to source the materials needed for greener technology.

Improving the recycling of end-of-life products and waste materials is a crucial part of this. However, the sheer increase in demand for these materials due to the ongoing transition to a low-carbon industry, as well as the growing affluence of consumers around the world, means that this alone is unlikely to be enough to prevent widespread ecosystem damage.

To reduce this demand, we must increase the energy efficiency of our homes and businesses so that they use less energy in the first place. Shifting away from private transport by investing in public transport will also help reduce mining demand. Without such action, achieving a truly sustainable low-carbon transition will be impossible.


Timothy Laing is Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Brighton.

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