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The Human and Environmental Cost of Renewable Energy

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I think we all agree that the move toward renewable energy is not just a policy imperative, but a moral one necessary to save the planet. That said, we also have to pay attention to the production of renewable energy and, instead of seeing it strictly as a good thing, demand to see it happen better. That’s important because it’s really quite nasty and awful.

For more than a decade, indigenous communities in Alaska have been fighting to prevent the mining of copper and gold at Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery and a crucial source of sustenance. The proposed mine, blocked under the Obama administration but inching forward under the Trump administration, has been billed by proponents as necessary to meet the growing demand for copper, which is used in wind turbines, batteries, and solar panels. Similar stories are playing out in Norway, where the Sámi community is fighting a copper mine, and in Papua New Guinea, where a company has been mining the seabed for gold and copper.

Weighing those trade-offs — between supporting mining in environmentally sensitive areas and sourcing metals needed to power renewables — is likely to become more common if countries continue generating more renewable energy. That’s according to a report out Wednesday from researchers at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia. The report, commissioned by the environmental organization Earthworks, finds that demand for metals such as copper, lithium and cobalt would skyrocket if countries around the world try to get their electric grids and transportation systems fully powered by renewable energy by 2050. Consequently, a rush to meet that demand could lead to more mining in countries with lax environmental and safety regulations and weak protections for workers.

“If not managed responsibly, this has the potential for new adverse environmental and social impacts,” the report says.

The list of metals used in the production of renewable energy is long. It includes the well-known — copper, silver and aluminum — as well as rare earths such as neodymium and dysprosium, used to make magnets for wind turbines. Mining for these metals is currently concentrated in just a handful of countries: Democratic Republic of Congo, China, Chile, and India, among them.

Take cobalt. Each electric vehicle needs between five to ten kilograms of the bluish-white metal for its lithium-ion batteries. The authors consider cobalt a “metal of most concern for supply risks,” because nearly 60 percent of its production takes place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country with a dismal record of child labor and human rights abuses. Should the world’s transportation and electricity sectors ever switch to running entirely on renewables, demand for the metal would soar to more than four times the amount available in reserves, according to the researchers.

The report’s authors modelled one scenario in which they assumed 100-percent renewable energy use for electricity production and transportation — a key goal in keeping temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels — and no recycling of metals. In this case, they projected that demand for lithium and nickel would increase 280 percent and 136 percent, respectively. In another scenario, the researchers assumed a high rate of recycling and more efficient renewable technologies that require less metal. Demand for the two metals still surpassed existing reserves by 86 percent and 43 percent.

In other words, it is absolutely imperative that we as consumers pay attention to supply chains and demand not only the production of renewable energy, but the ethical production of that energy, eliminating child labor and other forms of labor exploitation while minimizing the environmental damage of mining. Unfortunately, we take very shallow looks at the products we consume and basically don’t care if 1,138 people die making our clothing. It doesn’t have to be that way and renewable energy production is the perfect moment and industry for us to demand actual sustainability at the point of production. Demand your renewable energy companies source their materials in an ethical manner and hold them accountable.

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