Progress can be a double-edged sword

Mitigating the negative impact of clean technology

Datu Buyung Agusdinata

Environment & energy, Science and technology, Food & water | Asia, The World

25 September 2019

Be it electric vehicles or wind turbines, producing renewable energy demands resources – those resources must be acquired sustainably, Datu Buyung Agusdinata writes.

The Asia Pacific is increasingly under threat from climate change. According to the Asian Development Bank, the region contains six of the 10 nations most affected by extreme weather events.

With 58 economies, the Asia Pacific represents about 60 per cent of the world’s population and more than half of global energy consumption.

Some 85 per cent of that regional consumption is coming from fossil fuels, making air pollution also a major concern. Asia Pacific cities represent 85 of the top 100 polluted cities.

Emissions from transport are the fastest-growing source of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, with the vast majority of projected increases expected to come from developing Asia.

In 2006, Asia accounted for 19 per cent of total worldwide CO2 emissions from transport. By 2030, Asia’s share of total global CO2 emissions from transport will increase to 31 per cent.

The human costs of Asia’s unsustainable environment are dire. In 2015, more than half of 4.2 million early deaths worldwide attributed to air pollution occurred in India and China.

More on this: Mining, minerals, and firmer foundations for the future

To mitigate climate change and air pollution, the region is stepping up its efforts to transition to low-carbon energy and transportation systems. There is a lot of room to grow in a renewable energy portfolio that includes solar, wind, hydro, modern biofuels and geothermal.

The UN estimated that in 2014, renewable energy made up about 6.8 per cent of total final energy consumption, up from 6.2 per cent in 2012. Aiming to reduce emissions, emerging technologies such as electric vehicles (EVs), are growing, but crucially, they rely on lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) for high-density energy storage.

In the past 10 years, the production of LIBs has increased in capacity dramatically as the market has grown. China is currently the world’s biggest market for EVs. The country’s New Energy Vehicle Mandate Policy requires that EVs achieve four per cent of the share of new passenger vehicle sales by 2020, and reach five million in cumulative sales by 2020.

Producing LIBs for EVs presents an interesting example of a growing problem. Minerals, such as silver, lithium, copper, nickel, cobalt, and rare earths, play a vital role in their production and in the generation of other renewable energy and clean technologies, but they are difficult to source sustainably.

There are other examples too. Solar panels contain silver, aluminum, and copper.

More on this: How renewables could power Asia

The main component in a wind turbine is a permanent magnet that contains neodymium and dysprosium.

All of these minerals need to be mined.

The extraction and processing of minerals used for clean technology is associated with a number of sustainable development problems, including various economic, environmental, and social issues. Each mineral poses unique sustainability challenges.

For instance, Cobalt production in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which produces 60 per cent of today’s supply, presents ethical issues, as it is produced with the use of child labour.

Nickel mining is causing environmental degradation to freshwater and marine ecosystems. This has been observed in Canada, Russia, Australia, Philippines, Indonesia and New Caledonia. In Indonesia, some of these areas are already weakened ecologically by demand for timber and are putting habitat pressure on critically endangered species.

Lithium mining activities in Chile are resulting in degraded environmental quality too, threatening the habitat and livelihood of endangered flamingo birds.

Often, fresh water is used unsustainably to support mining operations. In the case of lithium extraction, approximately two million litres of water are pumped and evaporated to obtain just one ton of lithium product, and more fresh water is needed to produce the purified form for export.

The production of clean energy technologies can negatively impact land use, water, food, and social processes. For renewable energy to be fully sustainable, these impacts must be considered. To holistically design renewable energy systems, a circular economy approach is required.

More on this: Who will lead the bio-digital revolution?

An important step is to increase awareness among consumers of renewable energy and clean technologies of these problems. This will strengthen advocacy and put pressure on policymakers and companies to be more responsible when making these decisions. This could lead to improved mining practices.

Mining companies can also develop and implement processes that reduce their environmental impact, including recycling wastewater, minimising waste products, and processing brine more efficiently.

Current mining methods can be improved without compromising economics to protect social wellbeing and the environment.

Governments have a role in this too. They must pursue better governance and shared management of common resources. This can be done by enhancing transparency, by strengthening existing industry initiatives and institutions such as the Global Reporting Initiative and the Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development project, and by ensuring collaboration among stakeholders in community development projects are strengthened.

It is crucial to Asia’s sustainability that progress on clean energy should not be unaware of its potential negative impacts, and that the resources required to build the future are sourced ethically and sustainably.

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