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The dirty side of renewable energy

Our clean energy needs to be sourced responsibly right from the get-go.

  • Clean technologies rely on a wide range of metals sourced from unsustainable mining.
  • Mineral extraction damages local communities and environments, destroying cultures and biodiversity in the process.
  • Human rights and conservationist efforts are put at risk due to mining.

The many consequences of climate change are innumerable. Most of the civilized world understands that we need to put forth new, alternative solutions of generating energy to curb our greenhouse emissions.

The Paris Agreement, for instance, set an ambitious global goal to limit global warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degree Celsius) by transitioning away from fossil fuels into renewables. However, a new extensive research report by the environmental non-profit Earthworks has found that this shift into a fossil fuel-free economy comes with its own set of egregious societal and conservationist problems.

The blind rush to get "100 percent" renewable energy usage will get us nowhere. It's the same industrialist mindset that got us into this pickle. We need to approach this next energy wave with caution and care.

Renewable energy transition

Clean technologies require a wide variety of rare earth metals and other minerals, mostly including cobalt, nickel, lithium, aluminum, and silver. Batteries for electric cars makeup the biggest driver of mineral acquisition.

Study co-author, Elsa Dominish, remarks that, "A rapid increase in demand for metals for renewable energy. . . could lead to mining of marginal or unconventional resources, which are often in more remote or biodiverse places."

Many of these areas rich in minerals are remote wilderness, which have yet to be touched by any commercial endeavor.

"The transition toward a renewable energy and transport system requires a complex mix of metals — such as copper, cobalt, nickel, rare earths, lithium, and silver — many of which have only previously been mined in small amounts," states Earthworks' report, in reference to the supply chains of the 14 most important minerals used in renewable energy production.

Payal Sampat, director of Earthworks' Mining Program, sees this as a crucial time to focus on the core aspects of what an environmental movement should be focusing on.

"We have an opportunity, if we act now, to ensure that our emerging clean energy economy is truly clean–as well as just and equitable–and not dependent on dirty mining. As we scale up clean energy technologies in pursuit of our necessarily ambitious climate goals, we must protect community health, water, human rights, and the environment."

Under the supposition that all of human society would use 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, researchers charted out what other aspects of the environment would be affected as we attempted to reach this goal.

The study explores the impacts that mining has on human society and culture, as well as the potential for even greater losses of biodiversity.

With a world running completely on renewables, the metal requirements would be astronomical. The only way you're going to feed this need is by opening up more mines worldwide. Combined with our unsustainable mining practices, we'll be doing more harm than good.

Large scale commercial strip mining of forests, slave labor, and ecological destruction would all be necessary to feed our current "green dream."

Industrialism is the problem

Mineral extraction levies an incredible cost on the communities and ecological landscape of a place. Material mined for renewable energy fuels the violation of human rights, pollutes local water sources, and often destroys wildlife.

Cobalt, which is the most important component of rechargeable batteries, is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo; often by children in dangerous working conditions. The authors of the report found that cobalt is the "metal of most concern for supply risks," as 60 percent of its production occurs in Congo, a country with an abysmal record of human and environmental catastrophes.

In 2016, Amnesty International found that more than two dozen major electronics and automotive companies were failing to ensure that their supply chains of cobalt didn't include child labor. Amnesty blamed both Congolese officials and Western tech companies for ignoring the problems endemic to their supply chain. Irresponsible and dangerous cobalt mining is a global problem. According to the report, China's Congo Dongfang International Mining (CDM) owns exclusive rights to one quarter of the cobalt ore, of which the mines it flows from all employ child labor.

"The renewable energy transition will only be sustainable if it ensures human rights for the communities where the mining to supply renewable energy and battery technologies takes place," said Dominish.

Sustainability and conservation 

At present, write the authors, "Reducing the environmental and social impacts of supply is not a major focus of the renewable energy industry. In order for there to be a potential solution to all of this, there must be a convergence of different industries within the environmentalist movement. The recognition of renewable energy companies with conservationists, in particular, needs to be at the forefront.

"If manufacturers commit to responsible sourcing this will encourage more mines to engage in responsible practices and certification. There is also an urgent need to invest in recycling and reuse schemes to ensure the valuable metals used in these technologies are recovered, so only what is necessary is mined," states the report.

Recycling sources will be one way to mitigate demand, but this won't stop new mining developments from popping up in fragile wildlife areas. This is why responsible sourcing needs to be the next best step if these mines are going to be created, anyhow.

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If you don't practice accountability at work you're letting the formula for success slip right through your hands.

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  • In this lesson for leaders, managers, and individuals, Shideh Sedgh Bina, a founding partner of Insigniam and the editor-in-chief of IQ Insigniam Quarterly, explains why it is so crucial to success.
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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

An eight-metre-long Whale shark swims with other fish at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium on February 26, 2010 in Motobu, Okinawa, Japan.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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