Is Mining for Renewable Energy Safe?
Sep 10 2020 Read 410 Times
The mining necessary to obtain precious minerals used in renewable energy production could be causing significant damage to the ecosystems in which the mines are located, according to a new study from the University of Queensland in Australia. The harmful effects of this mining could offset the other environmental benefits incurred by a transition to renewables, argue the researchers behind the paper.
The analysis throws up difficult questions that are rarely countenanced at the policy-making level across Europe and beyond. The harmful emissions caused by the combustion of fossil fuels and their knock-on effect on both air quality and climate change have meant that the international community has long regarded renewable energy as the natural heir to the current status quo, but the new study throws that conclusion into some doubt.
Emissions vs biodiversity
After the initial manufacture of the site, renewable forms of energy production like wind and solar create far fewer emissions than their coal, oil and gas counterparts. For that reason, lawmakers and campaigners alike in the EU and further afield have seen them as the ideal way to achieve targets with regard to the emission of greenhouse gases, which are a chief contributing factor to global warming and climate change.
However, renewable energy often relies on the extraction and consumption of many minerals and metals, including aluminium, cobalt, copper and nickel. These are not only found in short supply, but the geographical location of the mines needed to extract them can either be within or in close proximity to sites protected because of vulnerable flora and fauna contained within them.
The scientific view
In order to investigate this underexplored area of research, Dr Laura Sonter from the University of Queensland led her team to map over 60,000 pre-operational, operational and defunct mining sites. 40 different minerals were targeted across all of the mines, covering a total area equivalent to 50 million square kilometres, or over a third of the planet’s total land surface (not including Antarctica).
The results of their study revealed that almost 10% of all mining operations were taking place within protected areas, while the figures associates with the renewable energy mining industry were even more concerning. 12% of the mines used for the materials needed for renewables were found in protected areas, while 7% were located in key biodiversity regions and 14% in wilderness zones.
Other threats to consider
As well as the risks to local biodiversity incurred through the mining operations, there are also the same dangers faced by the methane extraction industry. Furthermore, the infrastructure required to put renewable energy plants in place and keep them operational can also interfere with natural ecosystems, such as the disruptive offshore wind farms which can wreak havoc on marine habitats.
As a result, the team behind the study have called for care, consideration and strategic planning when it comes to the future of the renewable industry. “Mining threats to biodiversity will increase as more mines target materials for renewable energy production,” explained Dr Sonter. “Combine this risk with the extensive spatial footprint of renewable energy infrastructure, and the risks become even more concerning.”
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