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expert reaction to study looking at mining for materials used for renewable energy production, and biodiversity impacts

A study, published in Nature Communications, looked at mining for materials used for renewable energy production, and biodiversity impacts.

 

Prof Frances Wall, Professor of Applied Mineralogy, University of Exeter, said:

“I like that the authors place 31 commodities in their essential for renewable category and just 8 in the ‘not needed category’.  This highlights the need for raw materials to produce a low carbon, renewable energy economy.  The opportunities and challenges that this presents have been highlighted previously, for example in the World Bank’s Climate Smart Mining initiative: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/infographic/2019/02/26/climate-smart-mining.  These commodities include major metals such as iron ore used in bulk in construction, transport and throughout industry with mine production figures of billions of tonnes per year and also specialist technology metals needed in just thousands of tonnes per year.

“There is indeed a need for strategic planning as the authors say, by regional and national Governments.  It is also important to highlight the role of investor and customer requirements in encouraging best practice in biodiversity management – and other issues of sustainability.  With best practice the economic development that comes with mining help preserve biodiversity.

“The authors discovered that a greater proportion of pre-operational mines are targeting materials needed for renewable energy production (nearly 84%) compared to around 73% of operational mines.  I think this is what would be expected given the greater number of exploration projects, many of which will not come to fruition as mines.  Exploration funding follows fashions and there are many projects exploring for lithium and cobalt, headline metals for electric vehicles and renewable energy at the moment.

“I suspect that the conclusions on land influence are an overestimate because I see the authors give a 50 km diameter of influence in their model.  This is big and an overestimate for many mines.  The impacts will be extremely variable depending on (1) the scale and nature of mines – which range from multi km iron ore mines to low-impact underground mines, and (2) the nature of the biodiversity, whether local plants and insects or large mammals with long migration paths.  I can’t think of any proposed mine development in the UK for example that would influence biodiversity at 50km distance.”

 

Dr Sharon George, Senior Lecturer in the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment, Keele University, said:

Does the press release accurately reflect the science?

“Yes.

Is this good quality research?  Are the conclusions backed up by solid data?

“This data used is appropriate to show differences between mining scenarios and the relative risks to biodiversity.  While it is difficult to say the data would be true for any one mine, the study calculates overall tendencies across mining operations.

How does this work fit with the existing evidence?

“The mining of materials is known to have a negative impact through energy use and CO2 emissions and from the release of toxic chemicals into the environment.  Renewable technology manufacture relies on the same mining and processing methods but this initial cost to the environment is offset during the lifetime of the device.  How well this environmental cost is covered depends on the time a given technology stays in service and its efficiency, in other words, how much fossil fuel it displaces.

Have the authors accounted for confounders?  Are there important limitations to be aware of?

“The research doesn’t include the potential impact of future innovation to reduce the impacts of mining or advances in circular manufacture and renewable technology to reduce the amount of materials needed.  Advances in green manufacturing in particular, e.g., battery technology used in renewables is advancing rapidly to be more efficient, longer-lasting and to use lower impact materials.

What are the implications in the real world?  Is there any overspeculation?

“Often, only the carbon footprint of renewables is considered and other negative impacts overlooked but as energy demand continues to grow while our need to cut carbon emissions becomes more urgent, this impact is something we need to deal with.  Mines are drilled where the mineral deposits occur and where it is economic to operate.  This research highlights the need for more awareness and governance to protect the environment.

Does this mean these sorts of renewables could do more harm than good?

“Renewables are vital for our future sustainable energy production.  The initial negative impact of renewables production and end-of-life disposal can be significant, harming ecosystems and making it harder for local communities to live sustainably.  We urgently need more renewable energy so we need to innovate and find ways of reducing and eliminating harmful impacts.  We have seen similar issues, for example, with bioethanol production where it has been shown that methods of production can be improved.  The overall impact of the critical minerals used in renewable technology production can be reduced through tighter controls and governance over planning and operation and though circular design and manufacturing principles that would mean materials could be re-used reducing the need for mining.”

 

Mr Andrew Bloodworth, British Geological Survey Science Director, Policy, said:

“Loss of biodiversity and habitat are a major consequence of mankind’s rapidly increasing appetite for metals.

“Global renewable energy production is indeed growing in response to climate concerns, but what we should take care to remember is that the amount of metal consumed in the manufacture of this technology is very small compared to that used by modern economies in buildings, transport systems and consumer goods.

“We should not disregard the fact that population and per capita income growth are the primary drivers of increasing global demand for metals such as copper, iron and aluminium, as many parts of the world become more urbanised and wealthy.

“Whilst mining for renewable energy materials may be associated with some loss of biodiversity, this is considered to be small compared to the impact on biodiversity being caused by the mining of materials to create new high-rise buildings, vehicles and consumer products.”

 

Dr Nathalie Pettorelli, Senior Research Fellow, ZSL Institute of Zoology, said:

“This study overlaps the known distribution of pre-operational, operational, and closed mining properties with information on the distribution of protected areas, key biodiversity areas and remaining wilderness areas to draw conclusion about the potential risks to biodiversity associated with increased renewable energy production.  The approach provides us with a first global picture of potentially sensitive areas; however, factors such as the distribution of threatened species and ecosystems, species vulnerability to mining, governance, protected area management effectiveness and metal extraction method also matter when assessing such risks.  These factors haven’t been considered in the present study, and so further analyses would be required to (i) assess more precisely where increased mining activities could particularly threaten remnant biodiversity and (ii) develop adapted and effective mitigation approaches.

“As pointed out by this new study, the transition to a greener economy risks generating further biodiversity loss if no strategic planning underpins the sourcing of metals needed for renewable energy production.  However, we are facing a climate emergency and we do need to swiftly address our dependence on fossil fuels if we are to safeguard our remnant biodiversity and the wellbeing of human societies worldwide.  We do have relevant knowledge and experience to mitigate the threats to biodiversity associated with a global switch to renewable energy; we also have become better at restoring nature.  The current pandemic has then shown us that much can be achieved without a need to constantly travel.  A transition to a greener future is about bringing all these elements together, addressing risks but also fully capitalising on new opportunities to build a world where wildlife and people thrive.”

 

‘Renewable energy production will exacerbate mining threats to biodiversity’ by Laura J. Sonter et al. was published in Nature Communications at 16:00 UK time on Tuesday 1 September 2020.

DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-17928-5

 

Declared interests

Prof Frances Wall: “No conflicts.”

Dr Sharon George: “I don’t have any interests to declare.”

Dr Nathalie Pettorelli: “I confirm I have no interest to declare.”

None others received.

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