Not entirely green: Renewables, critical materials and sustainability challenges

08 Aug 2019
By Isabella Leunig, Jeffrey Wilson
Not entirely green: Renewables, critical materials and sustainability challenges
The issue of climate change has become one of the most prominent issues within the political and social landscape in recent years. The development and deployment of renewable energy technologies is one of most important steps in reducing greenhouse emissions. However, renewables – whether solar, wind, or geothermal – requires significant adaptions to our energy infrastructure networks. Energy storage systems, particularly the use of grid-connected batteries, will play an important role.

As renewables achieve greater penetration, demand for critical materials will rapidly rise. This speciality metals are used throughout the renewable energy economy, in batteries, electric vehicles, super-conductors, and high performance magnets. But while critical materials have ‘green credentials’ in supporting the renewables sector, their extraction and processing itself often poses serious environmental and social challenges in the developing economies which produce them.

To ensure that renewables genuinely achieve environmental goals, it is essential that the critical materials they use come from secure and sustainable sources of supply.

Bauxite in Guinea

Bauxite is the world's main source of aluminium. Guinea holds a substantial percentage of the world’s bauxite reserves and the mining industry makes up approximately 20 percent of the country’s GDP. However, there has been many issues due to high levels of corruption and the continuation of the cycle of instability, corruption and poverty. The human rights consequences for communities surrounding bauxite mines, concentrated in the Bok√© region, are pronounced. Mining in the region has led to issues surrounding access to drinking water due to damaged water sources. This affects rivers, streams and wells that are relied upon by communities, threatening their health and survival.

It has also been reported that bauxite dust has smothered farms and has significantly reduced air quality. This bauxite dust has further health implications, and threatens the food quality of the region which impacts livestock population and health due to the consumption of polluted vegetation. Government institutions and oversight is lacking, often prioritising profits and investment over the social and environmental implications. The negative implications of the bauxite mining further exacerbates the developmental challenges in Guinea, which ranked 183 out of 188 countries on the UN’s Human Development Report 2016.

Nickel in the Philippines

Nickel is used for a variety of renewable energy technologies, and the demand for nickel is expected to increase by 1200 percent through 2050. The Philippines currently holds the 5th largest reserves of nickel globally and has been faced with significant environmental concerns surrounding mining practices. Nickel extraction has negatively affected ecosystems and their levels of biodiversity, encroached upon habitats for endangered species, and degraded ancestral lands of the indigenous Mandaya people. There have been widespread reports of toxic nickel laterite polluting waterways leading to rivers, jeopardising livelihoods and adversely affecting human health in these regions.

Despite its role as the second largest producer of nickel in the world, the Philippines nickel industry has faced a tumultuous three year period. The appointment of Regina Lopez as head of the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources in 2016 lead to a widespread audit and shutdown of nickel mines due to concerns surrounding the aforementioned impacts. Announcing these shotdowns, Lopez declared “You cannot run your business and affect our farmers and fishermen.” However these shutdowns have yet to create frameworks to reduce the negative impacts of the industry. They have also lead to criticism due to an estimated 234,000 jobs lost and 1.2million people affected by the shut downs. 

The Lithium Triangle

Lithium is an essential element to the electric batteries that are necessary to help balance grid storage in the new renewable world. Demand for this element is increasing, with lithium being present in everything from smart phones, to electric car batteries. Within South America, 59% of the world’s lithium reserves are found in an area called the ‘Lithium Triangle’, which transcends the borders of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina.

The process used to extract lithium from brines in has a significant environmental impact, causing pollution and requiring large amounts of water in order to effectively extract the mineral. This process has threatened the fragile salt flat ecosystems found within the region including Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. The water-intensive method of extraction has resulted in diversion of water to mines from communities across the lithium triangle, with operations in Chile’s Salar de Atacama consuming 65% of the region’s water. With the region being one of the driest on the planet, farms have been significantly affected and livelihoods under threat due to the exacerbation of water shortages by the redirection of water to the mines.

High levels of government regulation of the lithium industry, particularly in Bolivia, has led to a divide between those who oppose the mining and their governments. Accusations of corruption have further flared tensions as communities have protested the rerouting of water and the expansion and addition of mining operations surrounding and on the Salt Flats.

Achieving sustainability across the value chain

Renewables are an essential component in efforts to mitigate and manage climate change. However, social and environmental issues in the critical materials value chains imposes significant costs on local mining communities and their countries. The renewables transition will fail to achieve sustainability objectives if these costs are simply shifted from the energy sector to the critical materials industries that supply it.

These social and environmental implications cannot not be ignored, and a concerted effort must be made to build new and more sustainable value chains as the renewables industry expands. Guinea, the Philippines, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile are indicative examples of a much wider issue that is global in scope. If these are not addressed the impact to communities and the environment from critical materials will become even more pronounced, and green energy technologies will be ‘not entirely green’.

The In The Zone 2019 conference will explore strategies for addressing the social and environmental challenges facing critical materials for the renewable energy sector. To learn more about the conference, visit https://perthusasia.edu.au/itz-2019

Authors

Isabella Leunig
Isabella Leunig
Jeffrey Wilson
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