To keep global temperature increase below 2°C and avert the increasing impacts of climate change, we would need a rapid transition to renewable energy.
Mining and renewable energy seem a strange mix because the former is viewed as a dirty industry for its GHG emission and capacity to damage the environment. But boosting the uptake of renewable energy means also increasing the mining of metals for renewable energy production. The latter promises a pathway to reduce GHG emissions and get us out of the climate crisis.
A study published in Nature communications in 2020 says that rapid transition to renewable energy will also increase threats to biodiversity due to the increase in mining activities.
The study mapped out mining areas worldwide and examined their proximity to conservation sites. It finds that almost 50 million kilometres of the earth’s land area are a potential mining site, excluding Antarctica.
Eighty-two per cent of the total area is used for renewable energy mining, with parts overlapping with protected areas and remaining wilderness. Eight per cent of the area overlaps with protected areas, 7% with crucial biodiversity, and 16% with remaining wilderness. These overlapping areas also contain a greater density of mines which indicates more significant threats to biodiversity.
According to the study, renewable energy production is also more material-intensive than fossil fuels, and future production will intensify the demands for metals. Recycling existing materials won’t be enough to cope with demands.
Threats to biodiversity will be more severe in countries that have these metals but lacks strong resource governance, such as in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt pan, which has the world’s second-largest lithium reserve but is currently untouched by mining.
To reduce biodiversity loss from mining activities and ensure that renewable energy production does not simply replace the climate change threats avoided from fossil fuel use will require a conservation plan that identifies and develop strategies to manage major biodiversity threats.
The study recommends an urgent need to understand the extent of mining risk to climate change and biodiversity.
“None of these potential tradeoffs is seriously considered in international climate policies, nor are new mining threats addressed in global discussions around post-2020 United Nation’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. Necessary actions include strengthening policies to avoid negative consequences of mining in places fundamentally important for conservation outcomes and developing necessary landscape plans that explicitly address current and future mining threats. These actions must also be supported by a significant research effort to overcome current knowledge deficits.”Sonter, L.J., Dade, M.C., Watson, J.E.M. et al.
To read the entire study, click the link below:
Sonter, L.J., Dade, M.C., Watson, J.E.M. et al. Renewable energy production will exacerbate mining threats to biodiversity. Nat Commun 11, 4174 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17928-5