Clean Energy Seems Like the Answer for the Climate Crisis – But Is It?

Jason Hickel’s article in Foreign Policy, “The Limits of Clean Energy” on September 6, 2019 hits the mark.  As we run to clean energy to stop the climate crisis, let’s pause and look at what that really means.  His article details it nicely.  It may not be what we want to hear but let’s not make the same mistake twice, as we have done with the fossil fuel industry and extreme extraction.

Let’s start with his best quote, “The only truly clean energy is less energy.”  We need to start there.  Unfortunately, most people are thinking that slapping some solar panels up and getting an electric car will do the trick.  His article opens up a whole new can of worms.

Switching from fossil fuel extraction to extracting the resources needed for renewables is just more mining.  As Hickel states, “mining has become one of the biggest single drivers of deforestation, ecosystem collapse, and biodiversity loss around the world.”

Manufacturing wind turbines and solar panels, along with the infrastructure to support and deliver that “clean” energy including batteries for storage tells another story.   There was a report issued by the World Bank in 2017, which detailed what this switch would look like, and it was only to support half of the existing economy.  Hickel goes the extra mile for the rest of the economy and the increase in resources for wind and solar would be “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.”  We would need 40 million tons of lithium, which is a 2,700 percent increase for the batteries.  I wonder if this factors in the lithium needed for batteries for electric cars.

And because we have no real idea the cost of resource extraction . . . because we do not see it, his account of a silver mine in Mexico, and silver is needed for solar panels, paints an ecological nightmare that is happening right now.  Just picture this:

“Take silver, for instance. Mexico is home to the Peñasquito mine, one of the biggest silver mines in the world. Covering nearly 40 square miles, the operation is staggering in its scale: a sprawling open-pit complex ripped into the mountains, flanked by two waste dumps each a mile long, and a tailings dam full of toxic sludge held back by a wall that’s 7 miles around and as high as a 50-story skyscraper. This mine will produce 11,000 tons of silver in 10 years before its reserves, the biggest in the world, are gone.

How many other ecological nightmares exist right now along with this silver mine?  But then again, we live in this little bubble . . . so insulated from all the products we buy, except for the people who live near that disaster.

There are water issues and sociological issues in the countries where these resources are extracted.  Some of the resources will run out sooner than others.  We need to look before we go down this road and act wisely.  Please take a look at Hickel’s article.  We need to know the facts.

What we need to do is extreme reduction of our energy and consumption to start with.

2 thoughts on “Clean Energy Seems Like the Answer for the Climate Crisis – But Is It?”

  1. As a World War II style mobilization to address the climate crisis gets started, better research could be applied. I don’t see how silver is needed for wind turbines. Many metals conduct; I don’t believe we need silver for that. I’ve built a wind powered electricity generator. You don’t need lead either. All you need is a metal core, like iron, wrapped with copper wire. Then you need fan blades to turn it and copper wires to carry the electricity. You don’t need lots of fancy stuff for this. Lead is used for batteries as is Lithium Ion. We definitely need more batteries. Lithium Ion is the best battery technology I know of. They’ve been doing research on other battery types for years, I never heard the results of that research. I think mining Lithium might be a necessary evil but we should be able to leave other stuff like Lead and Silver in the ground. We need to have open, frank discussions between scientists, environmentalists, workers, and those in power to solve these real-world issues. We shouldn’t just throw our hands up in the air though. Definitely airplanes and gas cars should be outlawed going forward. We need go down the path one step at a time, making sensible, informed decisions each step of the way, and saving as many people, animals, and plants as possible along the way. Pointing at real technical solutions and showing the faults is not helping except to cause despair; I believe there is a middle road to a solution. Also getting Indigenous people involved in the decision making process is necessary.


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