According to the International Energy Agency, if we want to limit the warming below 1.5 or even 2 degrees Celsius over the next 30 years, we will need to produce and install millions of solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles.
Fortunately, these technologies are getting better and more affordable. The fundamental benefit of most ecologically beneficial technologies, however, is that they employ materials that are more costly from an environmental perspective than the materials used in the technology that will eventually replace them.
The "Next Web" website includes a report that discusses the environmental costs of transitioning to green technology; For example, iron and zinc are required for the engines that generate the necessary power for wind turbines as well as corrosion-resistant steel.
Electric cars need lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese for their batteries, as well as neodymium and other rare earth materials for their engines. Therefore, building many of these devices will require huge amounts of specific materials, and many of them are difficult to mine. Some of it can come from recycling, but for many materials - like lithium - there isn't enough material in use today that can be recycled for future use, and instead, most of it has to come from mining.
This means that if low-carbon technology is used around the world, we need to face consequences or trade-offs of another kind. A global shift to electric vehicles, for example, could damage forest ecosystems to gain access to lithium or cobalt.
One of the main trade-offs between existing and future green technology is the environmental damage caused by mining and refining resources. One such material is aluminum, which is essential for creating frames for solar panels. According to research, global aluminum manufacturing is responsible for 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and by 2050, future emissions are expected to be twice as high as those from aircraft.
However, there is a chance to dramatically reduce these emissions, and using hydropower instead of fossil fuels to power aluminum manufacturing might cut emissions from new aluminum by roughly 75%. Better financial incentives for the mining sector to adopt renewable energy are necessary to achieve this, though.
The harm caused by obtaining these materials goes beyond the emissions they produce since, as is the case in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, extracting lithium from brine requires drilling holes in salt flats to bring the brine solution (salt water) to the surface, followed by the evaporation of the water using light from the sun to produce potassium, manganese, borax, and lithium salts.
There is debate about how much of this brine should be considered water and how much its extraction will impact water-stressed (i.e., water-deficient) areas like Chile. Those who contend that it belongs in the water category claim that extracting it causes unneeded water scarcity and harms delicate ecosystems.
The long-term effects of its extraction are yet unknown, even from the perspective of those who contend that it is not water because of its high mineral concentration. Most cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is another biomaterial utilized in electric vehicle batteries. It is alleged that a significant amount of cobalt is mined in mines using children often, under unsafe working conditions, with subpar safety records, and under unfair labor agreements. These trade-offs do not serve as an excuse for inaction on climate change or for delaying the development of the necessary technologies to decarbonize other systems. But it warrants paying special attention to where to get the components for environmentally friendly technologies.
By making our houses and businesses more energy-efficient, we can assist lower this demand by reducing the amount of energy such structures need to function. Investing in public transit instead of using private vehicles will also aid in lowering the demand for mining. A truly sustainable low-carbon transition won't be possible without such measures.
Edited by: Dalia Hennawy
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