The Dilemma of “Going Green”
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The Dilemma of “Going Green”

By Tobias Campbell

Humans currently mine 61.1 billion tons of material from Earth every year, and are still not able to keep up with the rapidly growing demand for raw materials. While mining emissions are currently minimal compared to other sectors, as we convert to clean energy and require more raw materials, these emissions will increase. 

The benefits of going “green” are clear: we would be slowing catastrophic climate change. However, many argue that it is necessary to reanalyze how we go “green.” Current technologies require unprecedented amounts of silicon and lithium, which are unrenewable resources that also produce significant emissions when extracted. Harnessing wind energy also requires massive amounts of energy and steel (the steel industry emits approximately 1.4 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually). Additionally, solar panels are not necessarily perfect solutions, as they only last 25-30 years. 

Lithium batteries seem promising. The chemical makeup of lithium makes it optimal for use in the storage of electricity. With energy produced by things like wind (which isn’t blowing all day), there needs to be a way to store and save energy for later use. Batteries are a way to hold that energy so that it can be redistributed when needed. It also means that places that rely on solar energy will have power on a cloudy day. However, lithium batteries currently have an average lifespan of just 300-500 charge cycles or 2-3 years, depending on the makeup of the battery and the amount of energy being stored. 

Mining lithium also has significant environmental impacts. In the Andes, lithium is sucked from brine deposits in the salt plains of the tall mountains, and vast amounts of water are required to clean the lithium and separate it from other minerals. In Australia, hard rock mining is used to obtain lithium, which requires explosives. These two locations hold about half of the world’s lithium reserves, and both of these methods have ecological costs. 

This means that the environment is torn apart for a few years of energy storage. It is important for scientists to look further into additional green solutions—ones that don’t require us to tear up our planet more than we already have.


References

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Delevingne, Lindsay, Will Glazener, Liesbet Grégoir, and Kimberly Henderson. 2020. “Climate Risk and Decarbonization: What Every Mining CEO Needs to Know.” McKinsey & Company. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/sustainability/our-insights/climate-risk-and-decarbonization-what-every-mining-ceo-needs-to-know.

Doedee, Vincent. 2023. “What Is the Carbon Footprint of Steel?” Sustainable Ships. Sustainable Ships. October 3. https://www.sustainable-ships.org/stories/2022/carbon-footprint-steel#:~:text=The%20IEA%20estimates%20that%20direct,of%20CO2%20per%20ton%20steel.

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“How Long Do Solar Panels Last? Solar Panel Lifespan 101.” 2023. EnergySage. Accessed November 6. https://www.energysage.com/solar/how-long-do-solar-panels-last/.

International Energy Agency. (2023). Critical Minerals Market Review 2023. IEA. https://iea.blob.core.windows.net/assets/afc35261-41b2-47d4-86d6-d5d77fc259be/CriticalMineralsMarketReview2023.pdf

“Lithium-Ion Battery Maintenance Guidelines.” n.d. Newark Electronics. Accessed November 10, 2023. https://www.newark.com/pdfs/techarticles/tektronix/LIBMG.pdf.

Moerenhout, Tom, and Kevin Brunelli. 2023. “Chile’s New Lithium Strategy: Why It Matters and What to Watch For – Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University SIPA | CGEP %.” Center on Global Energy Policy. https://www.energypolicy.columbia.edu/chiles-new-lithium-strategy-why-it-matters-and-what-to-watch-for/

“Office of Wastewater Management – Hardrock Mining Overview.” n.d. Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed November 10, 2023. https://www3.epa.gov/npdes/pubs/overview.htm.

The World Counts. (2023). Environmental Impacts of Mining. The World Counts. https://www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/planet-earth/mining/environmental-impacts-of-mining