The environmental challenges of renewable energy, not a simple compromise.

In 2015, 140 nations committed to the Paris Climate Change Accord to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by 90% (from 2010 levels) and reach carbon neutrality by 2100. To achieve this goal the energy sector has largely been focused on.

Renewable energies account for approximately 17% of global energy consumption, requiring a significant production increase to consider the eventual phase-out of fossil fuels. But there’s a problem, the mining of the required resources for renewable energy infrastructure may further increase threats to biodiversity.

The production of renewable energies is material-intensive and future production will escalate demand for many metals. It is unlikely that these new demands will be met by diverting use from other sectors or from recycling materials alone.

How are the materials we need to build the required renewable energy production capacity going to be sourced? On a global scale, scenarios in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement require the global production of some metals to grow at least twelvefold towards 2050, compared to today’s output.

Global conservation efforts are often unaware of the threats posed by the significant growth in renewable energies. Production infrastructure (e.g., for wind and solar farms) have significant spatial footprints and other environmental risks, but potentially more extensive are the direct and indirect consequences of upstream associated mining activities.

According to an article by Sonter et.al. (2020) “Mining potentially influences 50 million km2 of Earth’s land surface, with 8% coinciding with Protected Areas, 7% with Key Biodiversity Areas, and 16% with Remaining Wilderness. Most mining areas (82%) target materials needed for renewable energy production, and areas that overlap with Protected Areas and Remaining Wilderness contain a greater density of mines  compared to the overlapping mining areas that target other materials. Mining threats to biodiversity will increase as more mines target materials for renewable energy production and, without strategic planning, these new threats to biodiversity may surpass those averted by climate change mitigation.”

While some protected areas prevent mineral extraction and prospecting activities, more than 14% of these areas contain metal mines within or nearby their boundaries and consequences for biodiversity may extend many kilometres from mining sites.

It is of primary importance to include environmental (and social) studies right from inception in pre-feasibility studies, prior to even looking at Environmental and Social Impact Assessments (ESIA) for regulatory purposes.  Further investor requirements on miners and producers of metals used in renewable energies are also likely to ensure the whole renewable value chain is in line with Environmental Social Governance (ESG) principles. Proactive environmental planning will assist mining projects, avoid sensitive areas and result in mining projects with improved ESG credentials.

Resources

Laura J. Sonter, Marie C. Dade, James E. M. Watson & Rick K. Valenta, 2020. Renewable energy production will exacerbate mining threats to biodiversity. Sourced from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17928-5

Avery Thompson, December 2018. We Might Not Have Enough Materials for All the Solar Panels and Wind Turbines We Need. Sourced from https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/energy/a25576543/renewable-limits-materials-dutch-ministry-infrastructure/

Pieter van Exter, Sybren Bosch, Branco Schipper, Dr. Benjamin Sprecher (CML), Dr. René Kleijn . 2018. Metal demand for renewable electricity generation in the Netherlands. Sourced from https://www.metabolic.nl/publication/metal-demand-for-renewable-electricity-generation-in-the-netherlands/

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