Renewable Energy and Conservation: Is there an elephant in the room?
The planet is warming, and quickly. Most of us can see how the last couple of years are different from the years before that, and those different from the years before that. Wildfires are more common, bigger, and hotter. Droughts are more frequent, and so is devastating flooding. The permafrost is melting and so are our glaciers. In order for us to have a livable planet for our children, let alone grandchildren, we have to transition to renewable energy and we have to do it quickly. There is no other option. Burning fossil fuels puts everything from our climate to our oceans and drinking water at risk.
Additionally, our fossil fuel energy system relies on an unsustainable system of extraction and pollution that is devastating to our environment. Offshore drilling operations spill oil into our ocean ecosystems causing decades of damage to marine life. The air pollution from fossil fueled vehicles blankets many communities. It’s a flawed system, inexorably tied to waste, we know it and we need to leave it behind quickly.
A new system rooted in harvesting renewable energy is necessary and much better than oil, but it’s not guaranteed to be perfect. If we don’t take advantage of opportunities to do better, we could end up in another system where our land is ravaged by mining for technologically valuable minerals and ravaged again through the disposal of toxic waste after too short of a useful life. In Alaska, all five of the top five sources of toxic releases are mining operations. Toxification and habitat loss are among the major contributors to the mass extinction event we’re currently undergoing. As the planet warms, fresh and clean water will become even more precious. Just like stopping climate change, protecting our land and water is vital to a thriving planet and people.
The goal is an energy system that can power our lives and do it in ways that are virtually pollution free. There are three key steps to protecting our land and water as we fight for our climate.
Repair and Recycle
First, all energy technologies and in fact all products produced in our society should be made to be repaired, refurbished, and finally recycled. Policies like Right to Repair, Producer Responsibility, and combatting planned obsolescence can help us ensure that all technology, including those we use to create energy, are environmentally responsible. Proper recycling of electronics and green technology into new green technology has the potential to offset the demand for some of the key minerals needed to reach 100% renewable energy by 2050. A 2021 report predicts that proper recycling could reduce demand for mining lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper by 25%-55% with current technology improvement trends.
Source Responsibly: Update Standards
Second, we should source minerals responsibly. That means using the minerals already above ground first. That includes the recycling recommendation discussed above. It also includes recycling and reuse of tailings piles; tailings is the waste rock material that is left behind after the intended mineral is extracted from the ore. Some of those tailings piles will include minerals we now want. Additionally, we need to ensure that mines already in operation that are prioritizing other minerals also extract those used in renewable energy technology when they are present in the ore. When we find ourselves in a situation where mining is absolutely necessary, then it should be done with the utmost care for the water, land, wildlife, and people nearest to the site. Reforming the outdated 1872 General Mining Law and using international supply chains compliant with IRMA standards can help that navigation. Some sites will never be appropriate for mining. We don’t trade salmon for mines.
Embrace Efficiency: The Cleanest Energy
Third, and probably most importantly, using energy wisely will help us out of what could otherwise be a rock and a hard place. Right now, we waste a lot of energy through inefficient appliances, poor insulation, faulty transmission, devices drawing energy when not being used, and just plain wasteful usage patterns. It makes no sense to light up office buildings in the middle of the night when no one is working in them or illuminate acres of parking lots even if no one is nearby, and more. It also makes no sense to have a street packed with cars (electric or gas) made for five people, but primarily occupied by one.
If everyone used their cellphone for an average of one more year, it would be the equivalent of taking 636,000 cars off the road in regard to carbon emissions. In order to use the same amount of energy it takes to make a smartphone, a person would have to use the same smartphone for several decades.
We also waste a lot of energy producing unnecessary crap that doesn’t actually improve our quality of life. Instead, it ends up in landfills, storage containers, and overly packed attics soon after purchase. More than one in three American households rent offsite storage for some of their stuff. On average, an American tosses 82 pounds of clothing each year. A 2019 study found that the average American spends around $18,000/year on non-essential goods. It’s therefore no surprise that globally, the industrial sector uses over 50% of the world’s energy. Obviously we need some of that production of goods to continue, but not all of it is necessary. We can choose beautiful places over fast fashion, disposable cutlery, and dozens and dozens of other items that don’t actually make our lives better. If we use our energy wisely, which is no small task, we can live comfortably, protect the land and water we rely on, and maintain a livable climate for our children.
State Director, Alaska Environment Research & Policy Center
Dyani runs campaigns to promote clean air, clean water, and open spaces in Alaska. She lives in Anchorage and loves to hike, ski and cook yummy food.