A fossil fuel free economy is attainable, and essential if we are to avert catastrophic climate change. Solar, wind power and battery technologies are growing rapidly, while their costs continue to fall.
Yet, as with any dramatic transition, we must prepare for, and protect against, unintended consequences.
Renewable energy and electric vehicle production relies on minerals such as cobalt, nickel, lithium and copper. New research by the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures shows that transitioning to a 100% renewable energy future may cause demand for these minerals to skyrocket.
Extracting minerals already exacts significant costs on people and the environment, fueling human rights violations, massive water pollution and wildlife and forest destruction. Rising minerals demand means human and environmental costs of mineral extraction are likely to rise steeply as well. Metals mining is the leading industrial polluter in the United States, and contributes 10% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, according to the UN Environment Programme.
In early 2019 in Brazil, the collapse of two tailings dams at Vale’s Brumadinho iron ore mine killed hundreds of workers and local residents. Independent research that analyzes decades of data on mine waste dam failures reveals these catastrophic failures are occurring more frequently and are predicted to continue to increase in frequency due to increased extraction of increasingly lower grade — and therefore increasingly wasteful — mineral ores.
To avoid the mistakes of the past, a responsible materials transition must be accompany the 100 percent renewable energy transition.
We have an opportunity, if we act now, to ensure that our emerging clean energy economy is truly clean–as well as just and sustainable–and not dependent on dirty mining. As we embrace clean energy technologies in pursuit of our climate goals, we must protect community health, water, human rights and the environment. Doing so will require a concerted commitment from businesses and governments to:
We believe in humanity’s boundless capacity for innovation. We must ensure that renewable energy innovation accompanies innovation on a similar scale to change our mineral extraction and use to make ‘clean energy’ truly clean. We hope you will join us to collaboratively identify and pursue opportunities to accelerate the transition to a truly clean energy future.
The UTS-ISF report Responsible Minerals Sourcing for Renewable Energy:
Earthworks’ Making Clean Energy Clean, Just & Equitable: