Renewable energy can save the natural world – but if we’re not careful, it will also hurt it
September 2, 2020 Laura Sonter, Lecturer in Environmental Management, The University of Queensland, James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland, Richard K Valenta, Director – WH Bryan Mining and Geology Research Centre – The Sustainable Minerals Institute, The University of Queensland
A vast transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is crucial to slowing climate change. But building solar panels, wind turbines and other renewable energy infrastructure requires mining for materials. If not done responsibly, this may damage species and ecosystems.
In our research, published today, we mapped the world’s potential mining areas and assessed how they overlap with biodiversity conservation sites.
We found renewable energy production will exacerbate the threat mining poses to biodiversity – the world’s variety of animals and plants. It’s fair to assume that in some places, the extraction of renewables minerals may cause more damage to nature than the climate change it averts.
Australia is well placed to become a leader in mining of renewable energy materials and drive the push to a low-carbon world. But we must act now to protect our biodiversity from being harmed in the process.
Mining to prevent climate change
Currently, about 17% of current global energy consumption is achieved through renewable energy. To further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this proportion must rapidly increase.
Building new renewable energy infrastructure will involve mining minerals and metals. Some of these include:
- lithium, graphite and cobalt (mostly used in battery storage)
- zinc and titanium (used mostly for wind and geothermal energy)
- copper, nickle and aluminium (used in a range of renewable energy technologies).
The World Bank estimates the production of such materials could increase by 500% by 2050. It says more than 3 billion tonnes of minerals and metals will be needed to build the wind, solar and geothermal power, and energy storage, needed to keep global warming below 2℃ this century.
However, mining can seriously damage species and places. It destroys natural habitat, and surrounding environments can be harmed by the construction of transport infrastructure such as roads and railways […]