At the beginning of global warming and climate change decisions, policymakers quickly focused on greenhouse gas emissions as the primary cause. Based largely on their emissions, fuels were quickly labeled as either dirty or clean. While solar, wind, and hydro are clean, green, and renewable sources for power, petroleum and coal were big villains. Although natural gas was not as harmful as crude oil or coal, it was still a problem.
There have been many advances in solar and wind farms, rooftop solar and lithium-ion battery storage to store power. EVs (electric vehicles) that do not use diesel or petrol and help reduce global warming emissions have also been made.
The focus on emissions has helped to reach multiple broad agreements among countries, although not all of them. Ambitious targets for emission cuts and the replacement of dirty fuels by clean ones have been established.
But as climate researchers assess the environmental impact of different activities, they are pointing out that the issues are not as black and white as policymakersespecially those in developed countrieslike to think. Many questions have been raised: How clean is clean energy? What is the long-term effect of mining activities to meet the growing demand for EVs and lithium batteries in the world? Are petroleum and coal as bad as they seem?
Consider solar panels’ environmental footprint. These panels are now at the forefront of the fight against climate change because their prices continue to drop, largely due to large-scale Chinese production. It took some time for people to start looking at the environmental impact of cheaper solar panels. Many Chinese solar panel producers relied on cheap, coal-fired power. Solar panels made from renewable energy are much more expensive. Many Chinese solar panel manufacturers have been using alternative energy sources in recent years, but the vast majority of panels currently installed worldwide don’t have as clean an environmental footprint as they would like.
If you expand the discussion to include emissions, then the calculations for solar panels become more difficult. Photovoltaic panels contain cadmium. These minerals are often part of the by-products from mining and refining other metals and minerals. Many of these mining and refining activities have a significant environmental impact. However, most of it is not related to emission. There is also the issue of disposing of solar panels that are no longer in use. We will soon be confronted with another environmental problem as a result of solar panel discarded.
The story of solar panel is repeated with some modifications. Although wind turbines produce clean power, the materials used to build them are not environmentally friendly.
The lithium question is more complex and shows how the interests in developed countries can differ from those of developing nations. As ambitious goals have been set by developed countries for EV adoption, so has the demand for lithium-ion cells. This has led to a greater focus on lithium mining and refiningwhite olive oil, as it is known. This is good news economically but bad news for the Lithium Triangle nations of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia.
The EV race in the US, EU and other countries is causing a mining boom within the Lithium Triangle countries. This will have a significant impact on the ecology in some areas. However, it is necessary to reduce carbon emissions in richer countries.
What was once the dirtiest source of fuel is now getting a relook. Underground coal gasification, as well as other clean coal technologies such carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS), produce important fuels while reducing emissions to negligible levels. Grey and green hydrogen are another example. The gas is one of most promising clean fuels. However, grey hydrogen is currently being produced. This requires the gasification and lignite or coal to be produced. It is therefore considered a dirty fuel. Blue hydrogen, which is produced using steam methane reformation and the emissions captured by CCUS technology, is a cleaner version of hydrogen. The green hydrogen is the ultimate goal for green scientists. This gas is made by electrolysis of water. Problem is that the process is too expensive and difficult to implement. Research is ongoing to determine if this will change in the future.
Everything in climate science is about making trade-offs. Scientists and researchers are now aware that there is no technology which does not cause harm to the earth, ocean, or atmosphere. It is important to choose the most harmful technologies and find ways to repair the damage done. This is the crux of the climate war.
Senior business journalist