Renewable or Sustainable? Green Energy Is More Complicated Than You Think

2 September 2020, 0930 EDT

Jen Evans (Twitter: @Jen_L_Evans) is a PhD student at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and a Project Lead at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures. Her research focuses on resource rights, cooperation, and conflict.

On 30 June, House Democrats released a climate plan aimed at eliminating the U.S. economy’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The plan mandates sweeping shifts towards clean and renewable energy, with U.S. automakers transitioning to solely electric vehicle production and electric utility providers operating as net-zero emitters, all in the name of making America’s economy more sustainable.

The plan unveiled by Democratic policymakers follows widespread public support for renewable energy. Some 70% of consumers believe that, in the near future, 100% of electricity should be produced via renewable sources such as solar, wind, and hydropower. More than half of consumers are willing to increase their electric bills by 30% just to facilitate this transition. And corporations have been quick to jump on the renewable energy bandwagon, with 71 of the Fortune 100 companies having published sustainability targets as of 2017.

The case for renewables

Renewable energy proclaims to do everything from creating jobs to reducing dependency on imports. The main benefit of renewable energy, though, lies in its apparent ability to replace the burning of fossil fuels, which currently accounts for 62% of electricity production and 95% of transportation sector power in the United States. The damage and risk associated with this longtime dependency on fossil fuels is significant and potentially catastrophic. In addition to the well-documented impact of fossil fuels on climate change, the use of fossil fuels contributes to environmental degradation associated with the surface mining of coal, health and environmental risks of drilling for oil and natural gas, and economic and foreign policy implications related to reliance on oil imports that are often sourced from unstable regions at high risk of conflict.

It would appear, then, that renewable energy represents a comprehensive solution not only to carbon emissions associated with the burning of fossil fuels, but also to many environmental, economic, and security concerns related to extracting traditional energy resources. Yet, in discussing the many benefits of renewable energy, we often disregard a critical element: Our flashy devices, the factories that manufacture them, and the vehicles that deliver them to us do not inherently absorb the sun’s rays and spring to electrified life. Rather, producing accessible renewable energy requires technologies such as solar panels and wind turbines; technologies that are constructed using familiarly controversial extraction processes.

The demand and deregulation of green energy

Over 40 unique minerals—including cobalt, iron, aluminum, and copper—are used in the construction of solar, wind, and energy storage technologies such as lithium-ion batteries. Many of these minerals are sourced using open pit mining, which serves to disrupt ecosystems and release contaminants in manners similar to those of traditional surface coal mining. As public and private actors scramble to meet growing demands for renewable energy and related materials, such extractive activities are increasingly carried out within environmentally sensitive areas and amid relaxed environmental regulations.

And it is not only the environment that faces threats from the rabid desire for renewable energy. Deregulation of extractive activities surrounding critical minerals also leads to reduced labor protections and safety codes throughout mining industries. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is responsible for 60% of global cobalt production, 35,000 child laborers work in mines to produce materials required for smartphones and electric vehicles. Related reports of insufficient safety equipment, mine collapses, and traumatized child laborers raise questions surrounding the purported job creation touted by proponents of renewable energy.

In fact, many jobs associated with energy production, including renewable energy, are tied to high levels of corruption and conflict. While international supply chains may see promising labor market growth in domestic markets of the global North, energy sector operations in the global South often place both workers and citizens at risk. Conflict diamonds were famously used to fund past conflict in several African nations and, although issues surrounding conflict diamonds have been significantly mitigated via the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, illegal mining of minerals continues to fund violence throughout countries such as Venezuela.

Risks of corruption, exploitation, and conflict in extractive industries are exacerbated by the high concentrations of critical minerals in states with histories of governance issues surrounding public goods and resources. For example, 70% of global reserves of cobalt are located in fragile states, as defined by the 2018 Fragile States Index; while 100% of global chromium reserves are located in corrupt states, as defined by the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index. The rising demand for critical minerals has intensified social and political tensions throughout these and other source nations, with protests surrounding concerns such as environmental degradation and repression in mining communities rising between 2006 and 2013.

Despite widespread reporting of such issues, little action has been taken by governments, corporations, or consumers to protect peoples and environments at risk of exploitation from mining associated with renewable energy. Government regulations, including the Democrats’ newly proposed climate plan, push corporations towards renewable energy sources while neglecting human rights and other implications of mineral extraction. Corporations, in turn, largely ignore the issue, with 100% of 26 surveyed electronic and electric vehicle companies failing to follow international standards regarding human rights in cobalt supply chains. Meanwhile, consumers continue to demand more and more renewable energy, either unaware of or unconcerned with its vast global implications.

Many questions with few answers

Issues surrounding the extraction of critical minerals are well-defined, but a path towards responsible energy production remains unclear. With large mineral deposits ranging from China to Guatemala to Zimbabwe, it is ostensibly feasible to source critical minerals only from countries and corporations that are able to meet international standards for worker and environmental protections. Yet such measures do not assuage concerns surrounding the reliance on energy imports.

To tackle such concerns, it is necessary for energy consumers to look towards the domestic production of minerals and other materials needed for renewable energy. Many high energy-consuming nations, including the United States and Russia, are known to have deposits of needed minerals. Meanwhile, advancements have shown new capabilities to produce lithium-ion batteries without cobalt and to extract lithium from geothermal brine, apparently bypassing the need for often problematically sourced minerals.

But where would supplanting traditional minerals leave source nations such as Guinea and Madagascar? Minerals extraction represents a promising source of human, economic, and infrastructure development, particularly in transitional and developing economies. The establishment of responsible and transparent minerals supply chains associated with renewable energy offers an opportunity for meaningful global development. It is necessary, then, to take a step back from our immediate energy demands and consider true sustainability—and not solely in the environmental space.