A solar panel factory and the Shanghai Bund skyline in the background. Jeff_Hu / iStock
If we want to keep it global temperature rise Less than 1.5 or even 2, we will need a massive shift in how our energy and transportation systems work. The International Energy Agency announced that millions of solar panels, wind turbines and electric car (EVs) must be manufactured and deployed worldwide in the next three decades. Fortunately, these technologies are constantly improving – and they are also getting cheaper.
However, the main feature of most Environmentally friendly technology is that it requires more and more variety Materials From those used in the technology they replace. Need wind turbines iron and zinc For corrosion-resistant steels and motors needed to capture energy from the wind. And the electric car They need lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese for their batteries, as well as neodymium and other rare earth materials for their engines.
Accordingly, building many of these devices would require huge amounts of specific materials, many of which are difficult to mine. Some can come from recycling, but for many materials, like lithium, there aren’t enough materials in use today that can be recycled for future use. Instead, most of them should come from mining.
This means that if low-carbon technology is to be used worldwide, we need to face the less palatable consequences, or trade-offs, of building it. It could mean a global switch to electric vehicles, for example Damage to forest ecosystems to reach lithium or cobalt.
One of the main trade-offs is the associated environmental damage mining and refining Materials. Example Aluminium, which is vital for making solar panel frames. Worldwide aluminum production accounts for 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions, with studies estimating future emissions that could reach 1.7 gigaton of carbon dioxide by 2050 – the equivalent of twice the annual emissions from aircraft.
However, there is potential to reduce these emissions significantly. Switching the electricity source for aluminum processing from fossil fuels to hydropower could reduce emissions from new aluminum by about 75%. But what is needed to achieve this is better financial incentives for the mining sector to use renewable energy.
The difficulties in obtaining these materials are not limited to the emissions they produce. extract Lithium from brine – as in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile – it requires drilling holes in salt flats to bring brine (salt water) to the surface, then evaporating the water using sunlight to leave potassium, manganese, borax and lithium salts behind.
there discussion About how well this brine is classified as water, and thus how effective its extraction is water stress regions such as Chile. For those who argue that it should be classified as water, extracting it leads to unnecessary water scarcity and damage to fragile ecosystems. And 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 mined mostly in Democratic Republic of the Congo. A large but unknown amount of cobalt is mined by small-scale miners who often use children Accused Unsafe working conditions, poor safety records, and exploitative work contracts.
These trade-offs are not a justification for avoiding action on climate change, nor for refusing to build the technology we need to decarbonize platforms. However, they justify a Closer focus About how to get the materials to make environmentally friendly technologies.
Improving the recycling of old products and scrap materials is an essential part of this. However, the huge increase in demand for this material, due to its persistence Low carbon transmission Combined with the growing wealth of consumers around the world, this means that this alone probably won’t be enough to avoid widespread ecosystem damage.
To help reduce this demand, we must 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 mining demand. Without such work, the achievement is truly sustainable Low carbon transmission It would be impossible.