Ignore the green transition footprint at our peril

The world is sizzling under record-breaking temperatures.[1]Wildfires have broken out through the Greek island of Rhodes, forcing thousands of people to flee.[2]Typhoons, supercharged by the warming ocean, flooded cities and left residents without power.[3] [4]A new study by World Weather Attribution found this recent extreme heat would have been extremely rare without human-induced climate change.[5]

Wildfires burn on the Greek island of Rhodes as people evacuate (Image source: Associated Press)

Landslide caused by Typhoon Doksuri in the Philippines (Image source: Associated Press)

To avoid the worst of climate change, experts have urged an immediate transition away from fossil fuels. Renewable energy is touted as the most viable and sustainable alternative to fill in the gap. China is currently building wind and solar capacity faster than expected, and may reach its 2030 target a few years ahead of schedule.[6]Over in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest solar farm is being developed to supply 350,000 homes with 2,060MW of electricity.[7]While production capacity for certain resources will need to ramp up significantly to meet the anticipated demand, shifting fully to renewables is believed to be feasible and economically viable.[8][9]

The Bhadla Solar Park in India, the world’s largest solar power plant at the moment (Image source: Business Insider)

But in our enthusiasm, we should not overlook the environmental and social costs that come with this green transition. We have previously talked about how energy and water-intensive lithium extraction can be, and how little lithium is currently recycled from old lithium-ion batteries due to its abundance and the cheaper cost of extraction.[10]Mines are being opened in mineral-rich developing countries and regions with weaker environmental and labour regulations, damaging ecosystems and communities to tap into the deposits underneath.

For instance, 75% of the world’s supply of cobalt, a critical ingredient for renewable energy storage, currently comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where unregulated artisanal mining is rampant.[11]In additional to many human rights issues, the workers are unprotected from cobalt exposure, which can cause from skin rash to ‘hard metal lung disease’—characterised by coughing, shortness of breath, fevers, and more.[12][13]Tailings from cobalt mines produce corrosive sulfuric acid, which, if improperly managed, can leach into and devastate nearby water sources.[14]

Workers with sacks of ore at the Shabara artisanal mine near Kolwezi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (Image source: AFP)

Another mineral of note is nickel. Indonesia is the largest exporter of this critical mineral, accounting for half of the global production at 1.6 million tonnes in 2022.[15]Swathes of rainforests and mangroves have been cut down to access the nickel deposits; this widespread deforestation has significantly weakened slopes and increased landslide risks. Tailings from mining operations and soil erosion as a consequence of deforestation are also polluting waters and marine habitats downstream with sediments.[16]

Water dyed red by effluent from a nearby nickel mine in Indonesia (Image source: Mongabay)

Decades of climate procrastination means there is now an urgent need to turbocharge decarbonisation efforts and play catch up. This is however also coming at the cost of large-scale human and environmental exploitation, which we must address.

To achieve a successful green transition, it is crucial to adopt sustainable and socially responsible practices in the extraction and utilisation of natural resources,[17]while also promoting resource circularity.[18]By doing so, we can minimise environmental impact and ensure the longevity of these valuable materials.

We can mitigate the impact by reducing our demands for energy, transportation, and other goods and services. This could mean adopting cooling solutions to minimise air conditioning needs, such as installing doors for stores, green walls, and water fountains; embracing new trends like remote working and mixed-use zoning, and designing cities that are more walkable and less reliant on cars, and more.

Children playing in a water park in Dallas to cool off under the heatwave (Image source: New York Times)

We need the green transition if we do not want our future generation to inherit a world on fire, but we also need to ensure we are not defacing Earth in the process.

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