The Switch To Clean Energy Could Threaten Biodiversity If We're Not Careful

A Copper mine pit of Atalaya Rio Tinto in Andalucía, Spain. Denis Zhitnik/Shutterstock

In a catch-22 of epic proportions, the planet’s quest to pivot towards renewable energy could disrupt certain ecosystems and deepen ongoing threats to biodiversity.

Switching to clean energy is an absolute must if humanity wants to avoid a full-blown climate crisis. To pull off this transition, the world is going to need to produce a lot of electric vehicles, solar panels, storage batteries, wind turbines, and other renewable energy infrastructure, all of which require a variety of mined minerals, including cobalt, nickel, lithium, copper, aluminum, silver, and rare-earth minerals.  

In a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers at the University of Queensland (UQ), Australia looked at how the mining of 30 minerals needed for clean energy infrastructure could disrupt biodiversity across the world.

“Mining can have particularly acute impacts on some species and ecosystems. For example, species with small habitat ranges and ecosystems that occur exclusively within mineral-rich landscapes, possibly because they have evolved with the underlying geology, may be especially vulnerable to mineral production,” lead author Dr Laura Sonter from UQ's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences explained to IFLScience. 

“Some of these mined materials may create more severe threats to biodiversity than others, but the impacts will depend on many factors, including the size and grade of the resource, the method used to extract it, the composition and vulnerability of the environment, and the quality of policies regulating mining operations."

Global mining areas and their density. L Sonter et al/Nature Communications/2020

As a starter, the study explains how mining potentially influences 49.9 million kilometers of Earth’s terrestrial land area, which equates to over 37 percent of Earth, excluding Antarctica, and over 80 percent of mines harvest materials that are critical for renewable energy production. 

They worked out that up to 8 percent of mining areas coincided with nationally-designated Protected Areas, while 7 percent of mining areas were identified as Key Biodiversity Areas. On top of that, up to 16 percent of mining areas were defined as Remaining Wilderness, lands untouched by human development that are considered important buffers against diversity loss and environmental destruction. 

For example, one key area of concern is Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt pan; an area that’s home to the world’s second-largest untouched lithium reserve, but also rich in biodiversity, including the Culpeo fox, the rabbit-like Bolivian vizcacha, and Andean flamingos. To make matters worse, the study also argues the country has a lack of “strong resource governance,” suggesting the reserve is vulnerable to being exploited from international mining companies.

Flamingos on the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats), Bolivia. K_Boonnitrod/Shutterstock

Given the current disruption of mining operations, many of these biodiversity-rich areas are likely to become increasingly disturbed when demand for these 30 minerals starts to ramp up. In fact, these new threats to biodiversity may even surpass those averted by climate change mitigation. Fortunately, the crisis is not inevitable. With the correct planning and guidance, it’s possible for the planet to get its hands on these resources without disrupting areas of vulnerable biodiversity, the research found. 

“The good news is that our study suggests many of the materials required for renewable energies also exist outside areas important for biodiversity conservation,” said Sonter. “The challenge now is to proactively identify which species are most at risk to mining development and develop strong policies to avoid their loss. We need to replace fossil fuels with renewable sources of energies, without inadvertently causing further biodiversity loss.”

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