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Foreign Policy, SEPTEMBER 6, 2019, 8:51 AM
The Limits of Clean Energy
If the world isn’t careful, renewable energy could become as destructive
as fossil fuels.
BY JASON HICKEL
The conversation about climate change has been blazing ahead in recent
months. Propelled by the school climate strikes and social movements
like Extinction Rebellion, a number of governments have declared a
climate emergency, and progressive political parties are making plans—at
last—for a rapid transition to clean energy under the banner of the
Green New Deal.
This is a welcome shift, and we need more of it. But a new problem is
beginning to emerge that warrants our attention. Some proponents of the
Green New Deal seem to believe that it will pave the way to a utopia of
“green growth.” Once we trade dirty fossil fuels for clean energy,
there’s no reason we can’t keep expanding the economy forever.
This narrative may seem reasonable enough at first glance, but there are
good reasons to think twice about it. One of them has to do with clean
The phrase “clean energy” normally conjures up happy, innocent images of
warm sunshine and fresh wind. But while sunshine and wind is obviously
clean, the infrastructure we need to capture it is not. Far from it. The
transition to renewables is going to require a dramatic increase in the
extraction of metals and rare-earth minerals, with real ecological and
We need a rapid transition to renewables, yes—but scientists warn that
we can’t keep growing energy use at existing rates. No energy is
innocent. The only truly clean energy is less energy.
In 2017, the World Bank released a little-noticed report that offered
the first comprehensive look at this question. It models the increase in
material extraction that would be required to build enough solar and
wind utilities to produce an annual output of about 7 terawatts of
electricity by 2050. That’s enough to power roughly half of the global
economy. By doubling the World Bank figures, we can estimate what it
will take to get all the way to zero emissions—and the results are
staggering: 34 million metric tons of copper, 40 million tons of lead,
50 million tons of zinc, 162 million tons of aluminum, and no less than
4.8 billion tons of iron.
In some cases, the transition to renewables will require a massive
increase over existing levels of extraction. For neodymium—an essential
element in wind turbines—extraction will need to rise by nearly 35
percent over current levels. Higher-end estimates reported by the World
Bank suggest it could double.
The same is true of silver, which is critical to solar panels. Silver
extraction will go up 38 percent and perhaps as much as 105 percent.
Demand for indium, also essential to solar technology, will more than
triple and could end up skyrocketing by 920 percent.
And then there are all the batteries we’re going to need for power
storage. To keep energy flowing when the sun isn’t shining and the wind
isn’t blowing will require enormous batteries at the grid level. This
means 40 million tons of lithium—an eye-watering 2,700 percent increase
over current levels of extraction.
That’s just for electricity. We also need to think about vehicles. This
year, a group of leading British scientists submitted a letter to the
U.K. Committee on Climate Change outlining their concerns about the
ecological impact of electric cars. They agree, of course, that we need
to end the sale and use of combustion engines. But they pointed out that
unless consumption habits change, replacing the world’s projected fleet
of 2 billion vehicles is going to require an explosive increase in
mining: Global annual extraction of neodymium and dysprosium will go up
by another 70 percent, annual extraction of copper will need to more
than double, and cobalt will need to increase by a factor of almost
four—all for the entire period from now to 2050.
The problem here is not that we’re going to run out of key
minerals—although that may indeed become a concern. The real issue is
that this will exacerbate an already existing crisis of overextraction.
Mining has become one of the biggest single drivers of deforestation,
ecosystem collapse, and biodiversity loss around the world. Ecologists
estimate that even at present rates of global material use, we are
overshooting sustainable levels by 82 percent.
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