Green tech isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
President Biden has pledged to usher in a net zero-emission economy by 2050, electrifying government vehicle fleets, doubling offshore wind production and creating “millions of jobs in wind, solar, and carbon capture.” All of this sounds good on paper and makes for great political fodder in the battle against climate change. But in practice, it could mean creating a host of other environmental challenges.
Green technology like solar and wind require rare earth minerals which must be mined for. Under a projected two-degree increase in global temperatures, the World Bank estimates a 300 percent rise in demand for these key minerals. But while green technologies and the minerals used to create them are in high demand, they are also haunted by an uncomfortable reality: their production leaves behind it a wake of environmental degradation.
For example, neodymium, used in wind turbines and motors for electric vehicles, is extracted through open-pit mining, a method that disrupts ecosystems and releases contaminants that threaten air and groundwater quality. Over 80 percent of Earth’s neodymium deposits are found in a few mines in China, where there are little to no meaningful environmental precautions.
Cobalt is another rare earth element that is in high demand, being a key component of batteries for energy storage. It is primarily extracted from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DCR), where children as young as five years old are known to work the mines.
Even more disturbingly, several prominent solar companies appear to be morally compromised, with supply chains linked to forced labor of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province in China. The scandal has caught the attention of Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) who recently expressed their concern in a letter to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Forced labor, toxic waste, polluted groundwater and suppression of local communities are hallmarks of the rare earth mining industry in places like China and the DRC. And the reality is, these nations dominate the rare earth market. They do so by curtailing costly environmental precautions and employing exploitative labor practices to keep costs low. And not only does the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dominate mining, but the processing too. The U.S. mines some rare earths, but largely ships that material to China to be processed.
The end of this technology’s life cycle poses some problems, too. With wind turbines and solar panels lasting roughly 25 years, waste disposal has become a challenge that requires an immediate answer. Recycling is expensive, and since the material you can recoup, from spent solar panels for example, isn’t worth very much in comparison, most panels retire to landfills. Wind turbine blades, which cannot be recycled, end up in landfills too. Unlike solar panels, there is not a concern over toxic material leaching into ground soil from wind turbines; however, the blades do pile up.
This is a problem that’s going to compound and multiply at an overwhelming pace. In the U.S., 8,000 solar panels will reach the end of their life cycle per year over the next four years. And the International Renewable Energy Agency projects that by 2050 the world will have generated up to 78 million metric tons of solar waste.
Outside of Washington state, the U.S. has not mandated recycling of these materials. According to EcoWatch, only about 10 percent of solar panel waste is recycled annually. The rest makes its way to landfills or is shipped overseas. Much is shipped to impoverished communities throughout Asia in places like China, Taiwan, Thailand and Hong Kong.
As things stand today, we are simply offshoring our environmental problems for the benefit of addressing climate change within our borders, an effort that will make little difference in terms of global temperatures.
In addition to pollution, habitat destruction is another environmental problem we should aim to avoid. Conserving habitat is essential to prevent the extinction of vulnerable species. The massive amount of land required for solar and wind means less habitat.
Realistically, it’s unlikely the U.S. will ever be able to power its communities with solar and wind alone. The amount of land required is simply far too great to be practical — not to mention the issue of intermittent power generation, limited storage capacity and its inherent unreliability.
So-called “green” technologies may answer one environmental problem, but they just present others. Instead, the U.S. should focus on ramping up nuclear energy production. Nuclear, of course, comes with real costs too. But ultimately, it has fewer harmful impacts than wind and solar and does not leave us dependent upon abusive regimes overseas.
Nuclear energy is the most practical zero-emission source. It’s reliable, power-dense and generates very little waste in comparison to solar and wind. In fact, a nuclear power plant produces 300 times less waste per unit of electricity generated than solar panels.
Climate change is an important environmental challenge to address, no doubt. But we’ve got to find a way to address climate change without creating more environmental challenges to tackle down the road. As Thomas Sowell wisely noted, life’s not about perfect solutions; rather, it’s about choices between trade-offs. It’s time to stop making “green” technology out to be more than it is and finally focus on something that’ll actually work.
Kat Dwyer is a Young Voices contributor working in the conservation policy space and is co-host of the Whiskey Bench podcast. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Examiner, The National Interest, and others. Follow her on Twitter @KatJDwyer
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