Tag Archives: full decarbonization

Human and Environmental Costs of Low-Carbon Technologies

Substantial amounts of raw materials will be required to build new low-carbon energy devices and infrastructure.  Such materials include cobalt, copper, lithium, cadmium, and rare earth elements (REEs)—needed for technologies such as solar photovoltaics, batteries, electric vehicle (EV) motors, wind turbines, fuel cells, and nuclear reactors…  A majority of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country struggling to recover from years of armed conflict…Owing to a lack of preventative strategies and measures such as drilling with water and proper exhaust ventilation, many cobalt miners have extremely high levels of toxic metals in their body and are at risk of developing respiratory illness, heart disease, or cancer.

In addition, mining frequently results in severe environmental impacts and community dislocation. Moreover, metal production itself is energy intensive and difficult to decarbonize. Mining for copper,and mining for lithium has been criticized in Chile for depleting local groundwater resources across the Atacama Desert, destroying fragile ecosystems, and converting meadows and lagoons into salt flats. The extraction, crushing, refining, and processing of cadmium can pose risks such as groundwater or food contamination or worker exposure to hazardous chemicals. REE extraction in China has resulted  threatens rural groundwater aquifers as well as rivers and streams.

Although large-scale mining is often economically efficient, it has limited employment potential, only set to worsen with the recent arrival of fully automated mines. Even where there is relative political stability and stricter regulatory regimes in place, there can still be serious environmental failures, as exemplified by the recent global rise in dam failures at settling ponds for mine tailings. The level of distrust of extractive industries has even led to countrywide moratoria on all new mining projects, such as in El Salvador and the Philippines.

Traditional labor-intensive mechanisms of mining that involve less mechanization are called artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). Although ASM is not immune from poor governance or environmental harm, it provides livelihood potential for at least 40 million people worldwide…. It is also usually more strongly embedded in local and national economies than foreign-owned, large-scale mining, with a greater level of value retained and distributed within the country. Diversifying mineral supply chains to allow for greater coexistence of small- and large-scale operations is needed. Yet, efforts to incorporate artisanal miners into the formal economy have often resulted in a scarcity of permits awarded, exorbitant costs for miners to legalize their operations, and extremely lengthy and bureaucratic processes for registration….There needs to be a focus on policies that recognize ASM’s livelihood potential in areas of extreme poverty. The recent decision of the London Metals Exchange to have a policy of “nondiscrimination” toward ASM is a positive sign in this regard.

A great deal of attention has focused on fostering transparency and accountability of mineral mining by means of voluntary traceability or even “ethical minerals” schemes. International groups, including Amnesty International, the United Nations, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, have all called on mining companies to ensure that supply chains are not sourced from mines that involve illegal labor and/or child labor.

Traceability schemes, however, may be impossible to fully enforce in practice and could, in the extreme, merely become an exercise in public relations rather than improved governance and outcomes for miners…. Paramount among these is an acknowledgment that traceability schemes offer a largely technical solution to profoundly political problems and that these political issues cannot be circumvented or ignored if meaningful solutions for workers are to be found. Traceability schemes ultimately will have value if the market and consumers trust their authenticity and there are few potential opportunities for leakage in the system…

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a framework that stipulates that producers are responsible for the entire lifespan of a product, including at the end of its usefulness. EPR would, in particular, shift responsibility for collecting the valuable resource streams and materials inside used electronics from users or waste managers to the companies that produce the devices. EPR holds producers responsible for their products at the end of their useful life and encourages durability, extended product lifetimes, and designs that are easy to reuse, repair, or recover materials from. A successful EPR program known as PV Cycle has been in place in Europe for photovoltaics for about a decade and has helped drive a new market in used photovoltaics that has seen 30,000 metric tons of material recycled.

Benjamin K. Sovacool et al., Sustainable minerals and metals for a low-carbon future, Science, Jan. 3, 2020

The Carbon-Neutral Europe and its Climate Bank

The European Union (EU) Green Deal, a  24-page document reads like a list of vows to transform Europe into a living demonstration of how a vast economy can both prosper and prioritise the health of the planet. It covers everything from housing and food to biodiversity, batteries, decarbonised steel, air pollution and, crucially, how the EU will spread its vision beyond its borders to the wider world….The plan is large on ambition, but in many places frustratingly vague on detail.

Top billing goes to a pledge to make Europe carbon-neutral by 2050….Current policies on renewable energy and energy efficiency should already help to achieve 45-48% cuts by 2030. Green NGOs  would like to see the EU sweat a bit more and strive for 65% cuts by 2030, which is what models suggest is needed if the bloc is to do its share to limit global warming to 1.5-2ºC.

All this green ambition comes at a price. The commission estimates that an additional €175bn-€290bn ($192bn-$320bn) of investment will be needed each year to meet its net-zero goals. Much of this will come from private investors. One way they will be encouraged to pitch in is with new financial regulations. On December 5th, 2019 EU negotiators struck a provisional agreement on what financial products are deemed “green”. Next year large European companies will be forced to disclose more information about their impacts on the environment, including carbon emissions. These measures, the thinking goes, will give clearer signals to markets and help money flow into worthy investments.

Another lever is the European Investment Bank, a development bank with about €550bn on its balance-sheet, which is to be transformed into a climate bank. Already it has pledged to phase out financing fossil fuels by 2021. By 2025 Werner Hoyer, its boss, wants 50% of its lending to go to green projects, up from 28% today, and the rest to go to investments aligned with climate-change goals. Some of that money will flow into a “just transition” fund, worth €100bn over seven years. Job losses are an unavoidable consequence of decarbonising Europe’s economy; the coal industry alone employs around 250,000 people, mainly in eastern Europe. The fund will try to ease some of this pain, and the political opposition it provokes.

The Green Deal goes beyond the scope of previous climate policies. One area it enters with gusto is trade. Under the commission’s proposals, the eu will simply refuse to strike new trade deals with countries that fail to comply with the Paris agreement’s requirement that signatories must increase the scale of their decarbonisation pledges, known as “nationally determined contributions” or NDCs, every five years. That would mean no new deals with America while Donald Trump is president; it is set to drop out of the Paris agreement late in 2020. And, because the first round of enhanced ndcs is due next year, it would put pressure on countries that are dragging their feet on these, of which there are dozens—including China and India.

The deal also sketches out plans for a carbon border-adjustment levy. Under the eu’s emission-trading scheme, large industries pay a fee of about €25 for every tonne of carbon dioxide they emit. Other regions have similar schemes with different carbon prices. A border-adjustment mechanism would level the playing field.

Excerpts from, The EU’s Green Deal, Economist, Dec. 2019

Climate Change: the Costs of Deep Decarbonization

Nuclear is already the largest source of low-carbon energy in the United States and Europe and the second-largest source worldwide (after hydropower). In the September 2018 report of the MIT Energy Initiative, The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World shows that extending the life of the existing fleet of nuclear reactors worldwide is the least costly approach to avoiding an increase of carbon emissions in the power sector. Yet, some countries have prioritized closing nuclear plants, and other countries have policies that undermine the financial viability of their plants. Fortunately, there are signs that this situation is changing. In the United States, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York have taken steps to preserve their nuclear plants as part of a larger decarbonization strategy. In Taiwan, voters rejected a plan to end the use of nuclear energy. In France, decisions on nuclear plant closures must account for the impact on decarbonization commitments. In the United Kingdom, the government’s decarbonization policy entails replacing old nuclear plants with new ones. Strong actions are needed also in Belgium, Japan, South Korea, Spain, and Switzerland, where the existing nuclear fleet is seriously at risk of being phased out.

What about the existing electricity sector in developed countries—can it become fully decarbonized? In the United States, China, and Europe, the most effective and least costly path is a combination of variable renewable energy technologies—those that fluctuate with time of day or season (such as solar or wind energy), and low-carbon dispatchable sources (whose power output to the grid can be controlled on demand). Some options, such as hydropower and geothermal energy, are geographically limited. Other options, such as battery storage, are not affordable at the scale needed to balance variable energy demand through long periods of low wind and sun or through seasonal fluctuations, although that could change in the coming decades.

Nuclear energy is one low-carbon dispatchable option that is virtually unlimited and available now. Excluding nuclear power could double or triple the average cost of electricity for deep decarbonization scenarios because of the enormous overcapacity of solar energy, wind energy, and batteries that would be required to meet demand in the absence of a dispatchable low-carbon energy source.  One obstacle is that the cost of new nuclear plants has escalated, especially in the first-of-a-kind units currently being deployed in the United States and Western Europe. This may limit the role of nuclear power in a low-carbon portfolio and raise the cost of deep decarbonization. The good news is that the cost of new nuclear plants can be reduced through…modular construction shifting  labor from construction sites to productive factories and shipyards…and seismic isolation to protect the plant against earthquakes, which simplifies the structural design of the plant.

Excerpts from John Parsons, A fresh look at nuclear energy, Science, Jan. 2019