Ignore the green transition footprint at our peril
| Policy Research and Advocacy Team, Friends of the Earth (HK)
The world is sizzling under record-breaking temperatures.Wildfires have broken out through the Greek island of Rhodes, forcing thousands
of people to flee.Typhoons, supercharged by the warming ocean, flooded cities and left residents
without power. A new study by World Weather Attribution found this recent extreme heat would
have been extremely rare without human-induced climate change.
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.Over in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest solar farm is being developed to
supply 350,000 homes with 2,060MW of electricity.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.
The Bhadla Solar Park in India, the
world’s largest solar power plant at the moment (Image source: Business
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.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.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.Tailings from cobalt mines produce corrosive sulfuric acid, which, if
improperly managed, can leach into and devastate nearby water sources.
Workers with sacks of ore at the Shabara
artisanal mine near Kolwezi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (Image source:
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.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.
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,while also promoting resource circularity.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.