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Clean Energy Won't Damage The Environment Or Humanity: Here's Why
A new report shines a light on the reality of clean energy.
Every now and then, I get into arguments on Twitter with climate change deniers who claim that renewable energy won’t save the environment, but instead destroy it and drive rampant poverty and inhumane working conditions in the process. They maintain, without sources, that renewables will use too much land area, require too much damaging mining, and increase our water usage to such a level, that it is actually better for the planet and ourselves to carry on using fossil fuels. If we ignore the fact that oil reserves will run out in less than 50 years, making their whole argument a moot point, is there a shred of truth to their view? After all, misinformation tends to originate from twisting and misrepresenting facts. Well, luckily, a recent report answers this very question.
The report comes from the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC), which is a world-renowned international think tank, focusing on economic growth and climate change mitigation. Their latest report, “Material and Resource Requirements for the Energy Transition”, looked into the natural resources and materials needed to meet the needs of the energy transition and found some rather shocking results. Overall, they found that a global clean energy system would require 10% more water usage and just over twice the land area used by current fossil fuels.
That might sound like a lot of land, but let’s put it into context. Currently, the fossil fuel industry uses 0.4 million square km of land area with drilling sites, refineries, distribution centres and pipelines. Which is equivalent to a little less than the land area of Iraq. A global clean energy infrastructure would use around 1.1 million square km, which would consist mainly of onshore wind and solar farms, but it also takes into account mines and factories used to supply the renewable industry. That is about the same land area as Ethiopia, or twice that of Spain. To put it another way, powering all of humanity with renewable energy would only take up 1% of the Earth’s land area. But these land uses aren’t the same. Nature can’t thrive around oil refineries, drill sites or distribution centres. But many different species can thrive around solar and wind farms. Indeed, some are negatively impacted, but careful location selection and mitigating technology (like painting stripes on wind turbine blades to scare off birds) can solve this problem.
The report also stated that water usage of this global clean energy infrastructure would be 10% higher than the current fossil fuel one. This increase is driven by mining, as the processes to mine and refine the raw materials needed to build wind turbines and solar panels use a tonne of water. Now, water usage is a severe concern for the future, as we need to become a lot more efficient with how we use our water resources to ensure there is enough to go around and to ensure we aren’t needlessly damaging ecosystems. But building and maintaining a global clean energy infrastructure would only increase our water usage by 2%.
But improving agriculture can easily offset both the land use and water use of a global clean energy system. Global agriculture uses 50,000,000 square km and uses 70% of total water consumption. This means that just a 2.2% increase in land use efficiency and a 2.8% increase in water use efficiency in global agriculture would offset a global clean energy system. Modern techniques such as no-till farming, agrivoltaics, vertical farming, aquaponics and intelligent irrigation systems make these improvements easily attainable. Alternatively, we can reduce beef production (and keep diary and diary-related beef production) as cattle farming accounts for nearly half the land area used by global agriculture and a sizeable portion of its water usage.
So land and water usage isn’t really an issue for clean energy.
Another argument these anti-climate keyboard warriors throw my way is the notion that the downstream carbon emissions of renewables mean they emit more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels. The idea is that the carbon footprint created by the mining, refining and production associated with solar panels and wind turbines is so vast that their average lifetime per kWh carbon emissions are greater than natural gas, petrol or even coal.
While there is a tiny slither of truth here, as the production of renewable infrastructure does have sizeable carbon emissions, it is miles away from reality, as this report demonstrates. Taking the projected increase in energy demand into account, the ETC found that it would take 35 gigatonnes of carbon emissions to mine, refine and produce all the parts to build and maintain a clean global infrastructure between now and 2053. That is about the same emissions as humanity currently emits each year. By contrast, they found that a fossil fuel-based energy system would emit, on average, 41 gigatonnes each year over the same period.
This means that over a 30-year period, taking everything into account, a renewables-based energy system would emit just 2.8% of the emissions of a fossil fuel-based energy system.
But, for some, their qualms with renewables have nothing to do with emissions, land use or water use. Instead, it revolves around the horrific human rights abuse and child labour issues around cobalt mines in the Dominican Republic of the Congo (DRC). Cobalt is a crucial metal for renewables, as it is an essential ingredient for modern batteries, solar panels and even the massive magnets inside wind turbines, and 70% of it comes from the DRC’s atrocious mines.
Now, this isn’t a direct result of renewables. Instead, it is short-sighted penny-pinching. There are other cobalt reserves and mines in the world, but as demand for cobalt increased, investors and energy companies looked for a cheap and fast way to expand the cobalt supply. Rather than expanding mines in a developed world, which takes time and a lot of money thanks to labour and safety laws, they doubled down on the DRC’s mines, creating this horrific nightmare.
There has been sizeable public and investor backlash from this, forcing many companies to source cobalt from other locations. This has driven some countries, like Australia, to significantly expand their cobalt supply. It has also led to a surge in cobalt-free alternatives, such as LFP rather than lithium-ion batteries or neodymium magnets rather than SmCo magnets. While these have helped the situation, they are still a way off from solving the crisis in the DRC.
But again, this isn’t a problem with renewables or clean energy technology, more the companies that are running them. For example, Australia has 1.4 million tonnes of cobalt receivers, which accounts for 20% of global reserves, enough to meet cobalt demand for decades. If they had expanded the cobalt supply there rather than the DRC, then none of this would be an issue. Sure, batteries, solar panels and wind turbines could cost a little more, but not by much. In fact, as renewables are so much cheaper per kWh than fossil fuels, we can afford to buy ethical cobalt without breaking the bank.
Cobalt mining is a severe problem for the clean energy industry, but it is one that is fixable. By contrast, the millions of annual deaths caused by pollutants, rampant ecosystem destruction and environmental poverty caused by fossil fuels aren’t fixable. Overall, fossil fuels cause exponentially more death, pain, strife and poverty than renewables ever can.
So that is how renewables won’t damage the planet or humanity. I won’t pretend that clean energy is a utopian solution with no issues whatsoever. That kind of thinking can lead us astray. But all the data, research and tests we have shown us that renewables and clean energy are by far better for the planet and us. We do need to put pressure on the renewable industry to act ethically as they expand rapidly over the coming years. Otherwise, situations like that in the DRC will get worse. But there is already momentum in pace to see this through. So next time someone tells you that renewables are bad for the planet or bad for us, you now know what to say to them.
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