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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

World leaders are pondering unprecedented moves to combat global warming by speeding up the transition to clean tech — but they're also learning more about the potential downsides of those changes.

Why it matters: The changes will be needed to avoid the most dire climate scenarios. But there are potential environmental, human rights, and geopolitical risks to shifting how we get around, the way the electric grid operates, and how everything from cement is made to buildings are constructed.

What they're saying: "It's important to recognize that decarbonizing our economy will not be small and beautiful; replacing all of our fossil fuel infrastructure with clean energy will be big and messy," Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, told Axios via email.

  • "Getting to net-zero [emissions] by 2050 will require building a huge amount of new things incredibly quickly, and will entail lots of conflicts with some traditional environmental priorities."

The big picture: Perhaps the best-known problem companies and countries are facing is how to source the critical minerals needed for batteries that will be used to power electric cars, planes, energy storage devices, and more.

  • Mining for these minerals on land — including cobalt, lithium, manganese and graphite — can cause pollution and are often unsafe. In some places, like in China and the Congo, it can involve forced or child labor.
  • Efforts are underway to consider how to mine the seabed for rare Earth minerals, but here too, there's potential for environmental destruction — in this case, a danger to sea life.
  • The minerals are needed for electric vehicle batteries, but they're also in demand for other critical projects. These include the construction of vast arrays of wind turbines and solar photovoltaic farms.

Cleanly and ethically producing batteries is far from the only challenge facing countries as they move to decarbonize.

  • Other technologies also threaten biodiversity by extracting resources and taking up large amounts of land — including biomass energy with carbon capture and storage, known as BECCS. This involves extracting energy from biomass, such as certain crops grown for this purpose, and capturing and storing the carbon.
  • Mining for critical minerals is also more energy intensive than mining for bulk metals — which means they could actually increase carbon emissions as demand grows.
  • Right now we're hurtling toward an economy that will be far more dependent on a steady supply of these materials, but they're not evenly distributed worldwide, presenting geopolitical challenges. For example, the vast majority of the world's supply of refined cobalt comes from China, and China produces the most rare Earth minerals overall.
  • The U.S. is trying to mine more rare Earth minerals domestically or secure additional supplies abroad.

How it works: Since 2010, the average amount of minerals needed for a new unit of power generation has increased by 50%, according to an IEA report published in May.

  • The IEA found that a scenario in which the world reaches net zero carbon emissions by 2050 "would require six times more mineral inputs in 2040 than today."

What's next: The IEA warned that there need to be "broad and sustained efforts" to improve the environmental and social performance of mineral supply chains.

  • The report also recommends more recycling programs and stronger environmental and human rights standards that help steer economic rewards to responsible suppliers.

The bottom line: The decisions we make now to invest in new clean energy technologies and reduce greenhouse gas emissions will dictate how much warming-related disruption and damage we endure, and any associated clean tech complications we will experience during the next several decades.

  • Ultimately, the concerns related to the energy transition pale in comparison to the far-reaching harms that would be caused by letting human-caused global warming to continue to escalate.

Go deeper

Jul 30, 2021 - Axios Des Moines

Environmentalists fight to close Iowa coal plants

MidAmerican's George Neal Center South plant near Sioux City. Photo courtesy of MidAmerican Energy

Environmental groups are ramping up pressure on MidAmerican Energy to shutter its coal plants in Iowa.

Why it matters: While the tug-of-war between financial interests and curbing the use of fossil fuels continues, the debate also raises questions about Iowa's access to reliable sources of energy — and how to accurately forecast our energy needs.

Driving the news: The Environmental Law and Policy Center, Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) and the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against the Iowa Utilities Board last month, accusing the state panel of neglecting its regulatory obligations.

  • The groups allege that the board refused to consider evidence about the need to retire two of MidAmerican's Sioux City coal plants: George Neal Center North and South.
  • The plants are outdated, dirty and cost ratepayers an extra $17M a year in unnecessary operating costs, scientists hired by the groups have testified.

What they're saying: MidAmerican plans to close its five coal plants by 2049, company spokesperson Geoff Greenwood told Axios.

  • Maintaining a diverse power portfolio that includes coal is important for the foreseeable future in times when sun or wind are not adequate, Greenwood said.
  • Yes, but: IEC believes MidAmerican can safely close the two Neal Center plants now without jeopardizing energy security, Steve Guyer, a policy specialist for the group, told us.

Be smart: MidAmerican and Alliant Energy are the state's two investor-owned electric utilities that supply power to most Iowans.

  • Both companies are transitioning to renewable fuels like wind and solar, and have decommissioned multiple units of their coal plants or converted them to natural gas in the last decade.
  • Alliant will convert its only solely owned Iowa coal plant in Burlington to natural gas by the end of this year, spokesperson Cindy Tomlinson told Jason. Other coal facilities where it’s a co-owner will be converted or taken out of its fleet by 2040.

The big picture: The environmental wheels may not be moving fast enough for some, but change is occurring.

  • More than 100 coal-fired plants have been closed or converted to natural gas since 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

What's next: The IEC is holding an education webinar on coal plants Aug. 18.

  • Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement is planning a demonstration in Des Moines against MidAmerican's coal use, also on Aug. 18.
  • A Polk County District Court hearing in the lawsuit against the Iowa Utilities Board is slated for Oct. 8.
Updated 14 mins ago - Sports

The Olympic events to watch today

U.S. diver Krysten Palmer. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

5 events to watch today...
  • 🏃 Track & Field: Watch the men’s 100m final at 8:50 a.m. ET on nbcolympics.com
  • 🏐 Men’s volleyball: USA plays Argentina in the group stage at 8:45 a.m. on NBC.
  • 🤸 Gymnastics event finals: Watch the replay of the men's floor exercise and pommel horse, as well as the women's vault and uneven bars starting at 9:30 p.m. on NBC.
  • 🤽Men's water polo: USA takes on Greece in group play at 10:30 p.m. ET on CNBC.
  • 🏊Women's springboard final: Watch the replay tonight on NBC.

In photos: Tokyo Olympics day 9 highlights

Team USA's Ryan Murphy, Zach Apple, Michael Andrew and Caeleb Dressel celebrate winning gold in the final of the men's 4x100m medley relay swimming event during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo on Aug. 1. Photo: Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

Day nine of the Tokyo Olympic Games Sunday saw the final day of swimming competition end with a historic win for Team USA.

The big picture: The U.S. men's 4x100-meter medley relay team set a new record world as they won the final and Caeleb Dressel earned a fifth gold — becoming the fifth American to do so. Team USA's Bobby Finke won the 1,500-meter freestyle.