Sep 2, 2020 - Energy & Environment

The renewable threat to biodiversity

Illustration of a koala clinging to a wind turbine pole.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Expanded mining for materials used in renewable power technologies and electric cars could harm vulnerable species and ecosystems absent better planning, according to a peer-reviewed paper in Nature Communications.

Why it matters: The tech needed to fight one threat to biodiversity — climate change — can create other big risks unless policymakers act "urgently" on the matter, the researchers found.

  • It's not a far-off threat either. A new Financial Times feature explores how increased mining in Indonesia for nickel, an electric vehicle battery component, will create more marine waste.

How it works: They looked at tens of thousands of "pre-operational, operational, and closed" mining sites for dozens of materials, many of which target supplies needed for clean energy applications.

  • It then draws a 50-kilometer radius around them to assess their "spatial coincidence with biodiversity conservation sites and priorities."
  • They find that mining "potentially influences" almost 50 million square kilometers.
  • 8% of that overlaps with "protected areas," 7% with "key biodiversity areas," and 16% with "remaining wilderness."

Yes, but: Simon Evans of the climate news and analysis site Carbon Brief cautions via Twitter that the analysis assumes an extremely wide potential impact radius (again, 50 kilometers) around mining sites.

  • "[O]f course it's possible to think of potential impacts that can extend a long way, but as a default for all mines I don't think it is that meaningful," Evans tweeted.

The big picture: Greatly expanding climate-friendly energy and transport means much higher demand for materials like lithium, copper, cobalt and more.

  • As the International Energy Agency puts it, rising deployment is set to "supercharge demand for critical minerals."
  • The paper's authors, writing in The Conversation, cite World Bank estimates that demand for a suite of critical materials could grow by 500% by 2050.

The bottom line: "Careful strategic planning is urgently required to ensure that mining threats to biodiversity caused by renewable energy production do not surpass the threats averted by climate change mitigation and any effort to slow fossil fuel extraction and use," the paper concludes.

  • Lead author Laura Sonter of the University of Queensland in Australia tells the Guardian that the "good news" is “many of the required materials also exist outside areas important for conservation.”
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