The skyline of the Bund on the background of the solar panel plant. Jeff_Hu / iStock
If we want to keep the Earth’s temperature rise below 1.5 or even less than 2, we need to make major changes to the way energy and transportation systems work. The International Energy Agency has declared that over the next 30 years, millions of solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles (EVs) will need to be manufactured and deployed worldwide. Thankfully, these technologies are constantly improving and even cheaper.
However, an important feature of most eco-friendly technologies is that they require an increasingly diverse range of materials than those used in the technology they replace. Wind turbines require iron and zinc for the corrosion resistant steel and motors needed to draw energy from the wind. Also, in electric vehicles, batteries require neodymium and other rare earth materials in addition to lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese.
Therefore, building large numbers of these devices requires large amounts of specific materials, many of which are difficult to mine. Some can result from recycling, but many materials, such as lithium, are not sufficient to be recycled for future use. Instead, most have to come from the mining industry.
This means that if low carbon technology is used around the world, you will have to face the unpleasant consequences or trade-offs of building it. For example, switching to EV globally can mean damaging forest ecosystems to access lithium and cobalt.
One of the major trade-offs is the environmental damage associated with the mining and refining of materials. An example is aluminum, which is essential for the manufacture of solar panel frames. Global aluminum production accounts for 2% of total greenhouse gas emissions, and future emissions are estimated to reach 1.7 gigatons of CO by 2050. This is twice the annual emission from an airplane.
However, it has the potential to significantly reduce these emissions. By switching the power source for processing aluminum from fossil fuels to hydropower, we can reduce emissions from new aluminum by about 75%. But what is needed to do so is a better economic incentive for the mining sector to use renewable energy.
The difficulty of procuring these materials is not limited to the emissions they produce. Extracting Lithium from Salt Water-as is done in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile-drilling a hole in the salt plain to bring the salt water (salt water) to the surface, then using sunlight to evaporate the water Leaves potassium, manganese, volax, lithium salt.
There is debate about how well this salt water is suitable for water and therefore how its extraction affects water-stressed areas such as Chile. For those who insist that it should be classified as water, its extraction creates unnecessary water shortages and damages fragile ecosystems. And the long-term consequences of its extraction remain unclear, even from the point of view of those who claim that it is not water due to its high concentration of minerals.
Cobalt, another important material used in EV batteries, is mainly mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Large but unknown amounts of cobalt are often extracted by small miners who employ children and have been accused of dangerous working conditions, inadequate safety records, and exploitative employment contracts.
These trade-offs do not justify avoiding action against climate change or refusing to build the technologies needed to decarbonize critical systems. But they justify focusing on how the materials needed to create eco-friendly technologies are procured.
Improving the recycling of old products and scrap materials is an important part of this. However, the significant increase in demand for these materials due to the ongoing low carbon transition and increasing consumer wealth around the world is likely to avoid widespread ecosystem damage on its own. It means it’s not enough.
To reduce this demand, we need to increase the energy efficiency of homes and businesses and reduce the amount of energy needed in the first place. Shifting away from private transport by investing in public transport can also help reduce mining demand. Without such action, it would be impossible to achieve a truly sustainable low-carbon transition.
Timothy Rain, Senior Lecturer of Economics, University of Brighton
This article has been republished from Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Please read the original article.
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