Humans are directly responsible for the current climate tragedies taking place all over the globe. After years and years of abusing mother nature, she is striking back and hard. Thus, we should learn to compromise and give back some of what we have taken throughout our lives. However, as the world preaches the virtues of renewable energy, all facts regarding the topic must be laid out in the open.
Almost all renewable energy technologies like wind and solar energy projects rely heavily on rare and hard-to-find materials. Such metals include neodymium and europium which scientists consider as rare earth metal. They also include less familiar minerals such as the lithium used in rechargeable batteries. Therefore, scientists classify them as critical minerals. Critical minerals are metals and non-metals that are considered vital for our economic future but whose supply may be uncertain. Thus, mining them irresponsibly will chaos yet another inevitable environmental crisis.
Transitioning to renewables will certainly have drastic consequences on the planet. However, they might not all be positive as most of us have hoped. The change will cause a drastic increase not only in the consumption of raw materials (such as concrete, steel, aluminum, copper, and glass) but also in the diversity of materials used.
Since the start of industrialization, humans only depended on only half a dozen metals to satisfy their technological needs. However, as we rely more and more on renewables, we are using almost 50 elements spanning almost across the whole periodic table. Furthermore, just like fossil fuels, minerals are finite. Therefore, renewables might just turn out to be yet another way to further harm Earth’s natural systems, if used recklessly.
The Toxicity of Rare earth elements
It is important to address that while rare earth metals are essential for a green future, they can be pretty dangerous. In order to mine these materials, people must deal with the toxic and radioactive legacy of rare earth mining. Moreover, scientists believe that under-regulated rare earth projects can produce wastewater and tailings ponds that leak acids, heavy metals, and radioactive elements into groundwater. This is a failing that is bound to happen when the pressure for cheap and reliable rare earth starts to increase.
Furthermore, China is serving as a live example for the harmfulness of perhaps irresponsibly mining the critical minerals. After half a century of rare earth mining and processing, China appears to be paying the price. Thus, China’s State Council reported last year that the process has “severely damaged surface vegetation, caused soil erosion, pollution, and acidification, and reduced or even eliminated food crop output”. Moreover. It is important to note that Chinese rare earths plants typically produce wastewater with a “high concentration” of radioactive residues.
Electricity and others
Yes, renewable means can produce electricity and thus have the means to power up our devices. However, it’s the thousands of products that get manufactured from crude oil that are used to “make” these everyday devices. From phones to cars to kitchenware, it is fascinating how much material, energy, and time it takes to create our everyday objects. Each one of them relies heavily on crude oil for development one way or another.
That goes without mentioning the many forms of transportation.
A future that depends on renewable energy is a noble, fascinating, optimistic idea. However, there are no shortcuts to getting there. Everything should be fully analyzed and processed or else we are bound to repeat our mistakes. It is possible to overcome these challenges and live in a healthy world. However, we should only try and claim responsibly for the safety of our own planet.
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