Eco-friendly technology has its own disadvantages; therefore, the solution is to reduce energy demand

Eco-friendly technology has its own disadvantages; therefore, the solution is to reduce energy deman ...

If we want to keep our global temperature below 1.5 or even 2, then we should make a significant difference in how our energy and transport systems work. The International Energy Agency has stated that millions of solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicles (EVs) will need to be developed and deployed throughout the world in the next three decades. Thankfully, these technologies are constantly improving as well as becoming cheaper.

However, one of the most eco-friendly technologies is that it requires more and more varied materials than those used in the technology it will replace. Wind turbines need iron and zinc for the corrosion-proof steel and motors needed to absorb energy from the wind. Electric vehicles need lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese for their batteries, as well as neodymium and other rare earth materials for their motors.

Consequently, building lots of these devices will require enormous amounts of specific materials, many of which are difficult to mine. Some may be due to recycling, but many materials, such as lithium, are being used today, despite being limited to not enough that they may be reused for future use. Rather, most will have to be made from mining.

If low-carbon technology is to be used around the globe, we must confront the less palatable consequences or trade-offs of building it. Making a global switch to electric vehicles may, therefore, deteriorate forest ecosystems inability to use lithium or cobalt.


Environmental damage that comes with mining and refining equipment is one major challenge. Aluminum, which is crucial for producing solar panel frames, is used worldwide, for example. Future emissions could reach 1.7 gigatonnes of CO by 2050, equivalent to twice the estimated carbon emissions from airplanes.

There is a possibility to reduce these emission significantly, however. Using the source of electricity for aluminum processing from fossil fuels to hydroelectric can reduce emissions from new aluminum by around 75 percent. However, there are additional financial incentives for the mining industry to utilize renewable energy.

Difficulties with sourcing these materials are not limited to emissions they generate. As is done in Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, drilling holes in salt flats to evaporate brine (salt water) before leaving the water as evaporated by sunlight, leaving potassium, manganese, borax, and lithium salts behind.

There is a debate about how this brine is considered as water, and how much it is affecting water-stressed areas like Chile. For those who claim that it should be classified as water, its extraction is creating unnecessary water scarcity, and damaging fragile ecosystems. And even from the perspective of those who claim it is not water because of its high concentration of minerals, the long-term consequences of its extraction remain unknown.

Cobalt, another vital component used in electric vehicle batteries, is mostly mined in Congo. Small-scale miners have often accessed children and were accused of poor working conditions, poor safety records, and exploitative employment contracts.

These trade-offs are not a good way to avoid climate change, nor for refusing to use technology we need to destroy essential systems. Nevertheless, they justify a closer effort on the way materials needed to make eco-friendlier technology are sourced.

This is why recycling of old goods and scrap materials is an essential part of this strategy. However, the sheer increase in demand for these materials, owing to the ongoing low-carbon transition as well as consumers'' growing wealth around the world, means this alone will unlikely to be sufficient to alleviate widespread ecosystem damage.

We must increase the energy efficiency of our homes and businesses in order to make less energy firsthand. By switching away from private transportation by investing in public transportation, mining demand will also be reduced. Without such actions, achieving a profoundly sustainable low-carbon transition will be impossible.

Timothy Laing, a senior economist, is studying at the University of Brighton.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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