The dirty side of renewable energy

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

The dirty side of renewable energy
  • 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.

How tiny bioelectronic implants may someday replace pharmaceutical drugs

Scientists are using bioelectronic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases, an approach that capitalizes on the ancient "hardwiring" of the nervous system.

Left: The vagus nerve, the body's longest cranial nerve. Right: Vagus nerve stimulation implant by SetPoint Medical.

Credit: Adobe Stock / SetPoint Medical
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field that focuses on manipulating the nervous system to treat diseases.
  • Clinical studies show that using electronic devices to stimulate the vagus nerve is effective at treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Although it's not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, vagus nerve stimulation may also prove effective at treating other diseases like cancer, diabetes and depression.
Keep reading Show less

"Forced empathy" is a powerful negotiation tool. Here's how to do it.

Master negotiator Chris Voss breaks down how to get what you want during negotiations.

Credit: Paul Craft / Shutterstock
Personal Growth
  • Former FBI negotiator Chris Voss explains how forced empathy is a powerful negotiating tactic.
  • The key is starting a sentence with "What" or "How," causing the other person to look at the situation through your eyes.
  • What appears to signal weakness is turned into a strength when using this tactic.
Keep reading Show less

Toward a disease-sniffing device that rivals a dog’s nose

Trained dogs can detect cancer and other diseases by smell. Could a device do the same?

JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

Numerous studies have shown that trained dogs can detect many kinds of disease — including lung, breast, ovarian, bladder, and prostate cancers, and possibly Covid-19 — simply through smell. In some cases, involving prostate cancer for example, the dogs had a 99 percent success rate in detecting the disease by sniffing patients' urine samples.

Keep reading Show less

Scientists are building Earth’s virtual twin

Their goal is a digital model of the Earth that depicts climate change in all of its complexity.

Credit: Theis/Adobe Stock
Technology & Innovation
  • The European Union envisions an ambitious digital twin of the Earth to simulate climate change.
  • The project is a unique collaboration between Earth science and computer experts.
  • The digital twin will allow policymakers to audition expansive geoengineering projects meant to address climate change.
Keep reading Show less
Surprising Science

New research shows that bullies are often friends

Remedies must honor the complex social dynamics of adolescence.

Quantcast