Avoiding the two degree temperature rise threshold is probably the biggest challenge mankind has ever faced. A transition from fossil fuels to clean energy could be a major step in reducing our carbon dioxide emissions, but focusing on carbon emissions is only half the battle. The gains from such a transition can be seen as a temporary fix or even worse, a distraction from the real roots of the problem.
Firstly, almost all clean energy technologies need rare earth minerals for production and storage. These rare earths are finite, and the shift towards clean energy is expected to drive tremendous growth in demand for those minerals, which in turn would trigger higher mining activity and depletion of those resources.
In the absence of efficient reuse and recycling — which despite the vast research effort on recycling accounted to less than 1% in 2011 — or the development of technologies which use lower amounts of rare earths, following a path consistent with stabilisation of atmospheric CO2 at 450 ppm may lead to an increase of more than 2600% for certain rare earth minerals over the next 25 years, if the present needs are representative of future needs, according to a study led by a team of researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In addition to issues of abundance, rare earth mining and extraction procedures constitute massive exploitation of the earth’s resources and deteriorate soil and water ecosystems. One of the biggest concerns about mining from the primary ore deposits is the resulting radioactive stockpiles. Other negative effects of mining include severe biodiversity loss, land use change, flooding and air pollution.
As a professor, Karen Smith Stegen of Jacobs University in Bremen reports that at the moment China is the predominant supplier of rare earth minerals with about 90% of global production, and also dominates the processing processes, particularly the less abundant, heavy rare earth minerals, which means that many rare earth minerals extracted outside of China must be exported to China in order to enter value chains. Despite this other researchers, like Jacobson and Delucchi from Stanford University, demonstrate we can generate enough clean energy to power our current and near future demands, however, it fails to prove whether it can work in the long run. In other words, as vital as it can be, a transition to clean energy can lead us into a new era of energy-related geopolitics and resource scarcity and therefore, it might not be the only answer to achieving a sustainable future.
Secondly, the fact that technology does not always deliver its own prospects is overlooked. In the transport sector, for example, electric cars have recently emerged as a promising solution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Nonetheless, their production exhibit the possibility for significant increases in human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity, freshwater eutrophication, and metal depletion impacts, following a life cycle assessment of conventional and electric vehicles conducted by Hawkins and others at Yale University.
In addition to issues of abundance, rare earth mining and extraction procedures constitute massive exploitation of the earth’s resources and deteriorate soil and water ecosystems.
Despite the abundance of research focused on clean energy, finding new and better materials and more efficient designs, the adoption of any new technology will be a lengthy process and could take at least couple of years. We rely on technologies that are either imperfect or, even worse, have not been yet invented! In a situation where time is not on our side, invention only defies mandated timelines.
All the above mean that by simply shifting from one source of energy to another, we overlook the fact that new technologies would demand the same structures that put us where we are in the first place. This rigorous energy debate marginalises other problems such as deforestation, industrial production, livestock farming and landfills which are major sources of carbon dioxide and methane. We even tend to overlook the effect of methane, despite the fact that it has a much higher Global Warming Potential (GWP). If we keep razing forests, expanding industrial agriculture and livestock, producing more goods, and filling more landfill sites, it is simply naive to think we can stop climate change with technological innovations.
What is then the problem? We are aiming at the tip of the iceberg. No matter how much greener we make our future, there is one fundamental challenge hindering any major changes that we often forget to think about: questioning the logic of our current economic system and the unjustified aim for growth. Without a doubt, there are absolute physical limits to growth and resource extraction defined by the laws of thermodynamics. And even though we cannot predict when or where such limits will be encountered, it is obvious that they exist and that exponential growth poses a serious danger. The current economic system is now very large relative to the ecosystem that sustains it. As Tim Jackson, the famous critic of growing economy, warranted: “Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries. But question it we must.” The tendency of economic growth supporters to dismiss this obvious ecological truth has been remarkable. Despite the benefits behind technological advancement, it would be a gamble to rely on efficiency and technological innovations to fully decouple economic growth from material throughput while growth continues. With this in mind, to ‘succeed’ would be to destroy our planet.
The conventional dilemmas of modern technological society appear to be able to resurface, whatever the technology we innovate. Hence, technological optimism should not escape the need for fundamental social change. A wholesale change in patterns of consumption and a substantial reduction in resource intensity teamed with intentional shrinking of production are the least that will be needed to have a chance of achieving ecological sustainability and remaining within environmental limits in order to avoid an inevitable collapse of the resource base in the not-too-distant future. These imminent prospects are perfectly epitomized in Alf Hornborg’s words: “Money and technology together constitute a global game in which most players remain unaware of the extent to which the rules are both arbitrary and mutable, and in which the stakes are the relative distribution of workloads and environmental burdens.” This should constitute both a take away lesson and a wake up call before our time runs out.
This article was published in The Beam #6 — Subscribe now for more