Environmental Costs of Green Growth and Renewable Technologies

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Climate adaptation Green Growth Movement’s Pros and Cons and why reducing our consumption matters

An interesting piece from a New Zealand-based news site weighed in on whether the “green growth movement” is the answer to climate change and continued economic growth and how sustainable green technologies like solar panels and wind turbines concludes that shifting to renewable energy, like solar and wind, is not as sustainable or “renewable” as we think they are.

First, raw materials like copper, lithium, nickel, and cobalt that are needed to make them are mined. Many of these raw materials are getting scarce. Making a single wind turbine would require vast amounts of copper in addition to the ones used to conduct electricity.

There is also an environmental and social cost of mining these minerals. For instance, around 60% of cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A large number of mines there are unregulated, and they use children as young as seven to mine. The Guardian reports that children, women, and men are working without even the base protective equipment like gloves and facemasks and inhaling cobalt-laden dust that is fatal to their health. Waste from a mineral processing plant also has contaminated a source of drinking water in one of the villages there.

Harvesting lithium in South America has lowered their groundwater levels and has leached toxic chemicals into a river in Tibet.

These are only some examples of the growing environmental and social problems of mining these minerals to fuel green growth.

Second, building, manufacturing, transporting, and constructing them on-site requires vast amounts of fossil fuel, in addition to the use of fossil fuel to mine the minerals needed to build them. And when we need to replace these assets, we would need to mine more of the raw materials.

The article claims that expanding renewables would increase GHG emissions and surpass the 1.5°C temperature threshold.

While decarbonisation or reducing carbon emissions is the focus of addressing climate change, the article notes that this solution alone will not be enough. We need to reduce our excessive consumption, driving an ecological overshoot. This means that we are demanding more resources than nature can provide.

According to The Earth Overshoot Day, Ecological overshoot occurs when human demand exceeds the regenerative capacity of a natural ecosystem. The biosphere’s renewable capacity includes replenishing resources and absorbing waste, such as carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. Continuing like this will “destroy nature’s capacity to continue the evolutionary marvel of a self-regulating biosphere”, the article says.

Regarding how far ahead we are concerning our “overshoot”, their calculations show that we are currently at 1.7 Earths, an overbudget, which means that our demands for resources have gone past what nature can provide (Media Backgrounder, 2023).

This global overshoot started in the early 1970s.

“Ecological overshoot is only possible for a limited time before ecosystems begin to degrade and possibly collapse. Impacts of ecological overspending are apparent already in soil erosion, desertification, reduced cropland productivity, overgrazing, deforestation, rapid species extinction, fisheries collapse and increased carbon concentration in the atmosphere.”

The article notes that the green growth requirements will increase our extraction of fossil fuels and minerals and worsen our ecological overshoot.

Aside from reducing our emissions, something that is essential in the fight against climate change, we need to reign in our consumption, particularly our energy requirements. This is to reduce our ecological footprint or the demands we place on our biosphere. The article says advertising often tricks us into thinking that those “manufactured wishes feel like a need.”

So, is renewable energy growth worth pursuing, despite the issues surrounding it?

Prof Richard Herrington, head of earth sciences at the Natural History Museum, London, says, “The move towards net zero carbon emissions is going to create new stresses on our planet, at least in the short term” (McKie, 2021).

“We are going to have to learn how to consider profit and loss with regard to ecosystems just as we do now when we are considering economic issues.”

He adds that expansion in mining and fossil fuel consumption will be inevitable to refine ores, but we will have to do it profitably and also serves the people and planet.

Instead of exploiting the land for minerals, the article notes that the ocean floor holds billions of tons of seafloor metals in the form of nodules. These potato-sized globs of minerals are rich in copper, cobalt, manganese and other metals. The Clarion-Clipper Zone, which covers 1.7 million miles of the Pacific seabed, holds the largest deposits of these nodules.

Mining companies describe the nodules as a “battery in a rock” because it contains all the essential metals to create clean energy.

The Clarion-Clipperton Zone lies in international waters, and large areas have been set aside for different countries to mine. But biologist warns that mining these nodules can cause a series of deep-sea environmental disturbances, including displacement of native species, fish, crustaceans, and other marine organisms, disturbance of the biodiversity of vast areas of the seafloor, and sediment plumes from hydraulic pumping can jeopardise life on the seafloor, which can have adverse effects on climate change resistance (Discovery of new, 2023).

The New York Times reports that France and Belgium have already started harvesting these metallic nodules leaving visible scars on the ocean floors even after months and years of deep-sea dredging. The article notes that commercial deep-sea mining could begin in earnest as early as 2024.

To combat the dramatic shifts in underwater diversity expected when commercial mining starts, the marine biologist, in partnership with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has established the deep sea mining conservation strategy.

However, this initiative is just one of the ways to protect the ocean sea floor. A more sustainable solution would be to recycle materials that contain traces of manganese, iron, copper, nickel, and other valuable metals, as doing so would reduce the need for more mining of these minerals. 

An MIT article also looked at whether building carbon-intensive wind turbines to harness renewable energy would still be good for the climate.

The article says that every ton of metal produced to make wind turbines, solar farms, and other clean energy infrastructure would emit 1.5 tons of carbon, not to mention the other rare metals they require, adding more GHG emissions from its mining and refinement.

The answer is still a yes, says Donald R. Sadoway, MIT’s John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry, because the emissions avoided by using clean energy are greater than these construction materials’ environmental costs.

He says the same principle applies to electric cars – although their construction produces carbon emissions. Still, over the car’s lifetime, the reduction in tailpipe emissions is undoubtedly worth the upfront investment. 

Sadoway estimates that the percentage of emissions saved in the long run is around ten more than the carbon created in the short term.

The Department of Energy’s statistics are even more stark: It reports that wind energy produces about 11 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour of electricity throughout a turbine’s lifetime. The article says that solar energy, geothermal energy, and other clean sources all rate at less than 100 grams per kWh, compared to the 465g for natural gas and 980g for coal.

Nevertheless, construction materials such as steel and concrete, used widely and not only for renewable infrastructure, need to become more sustainable from every stage of the material’s life.


Media Backgrounder: Earth Overshoot Day. (2023). Earth Overshoot Day. Retrieved from https://www.overshootday.org/newsroom/media-backgrounder/

Santa Barbara, J. (2023, May 1). Green growth approach to climate change will do more harm than good. Newsroom. Retrieved from https://www.newsroom.co.nz/green-growth-approach-to-climate-change-will-do-more-harm-than-good

McKie, R. (2021, January 3). Child labour, toxic leaks: the price we could pay for a greener future. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jan/03/child-labour-toxic-leaks-the-price-we-could-pay-for-a-greener-future

Discover of New Seafloor Metals Prompts Problematic Deep Sea Mining Conquest. (2023). GLE Scrap Metal. Retrieved from https://glescrap.com/blog/discovery-of-new-seafloor-metals-prompts-problematic-deep-sea-mining-conquest/

Imbler, S. & Corum, J. (2022, August 29). Deep-Sea Riches: Mining a Remote Ecosystem. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/08/29/world/deep-sea-riches-mining-nodules.html

Moseman, A. (2022, March 18). Does the steel and concrete needed to build renewable energy cancel out the benefits?. MIT. Retrieved from https://climate.mit.edu/ask-mit/does-steel-and-concrete-needed-build-renewable-energy-cancel-out-benefits

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