There is no such thing as clean energy: Cleaner energy, yes
There is no such thing as clean energy. Some energy systems are cleaner than others.
All energy systems have emissions, pollutants and other externalities along their supply chains and in their lifecycles. As we are deciding what a cleaner energy option might be used, we need to compare all the possible alternatives along their supply chains and within their lifetimes.
All energy systems need other materials, such as minerals, water, air and land to be created. Energy systems such as wind, solar, electric vehicles and energy storage use a lot of minerals, such as copper, aluminum, rare earths, cadmium, tin, gold, silver, iron, lead, chromium, cobalt, graphite, lithium and many more minerals that need to be mined. Mining of minerals on the land and in the sea will be needed to make sure there is enough minerals for the massively increasing needs in the future for the energy transitions to come.
Mining is hardly clean in the resources sense. There are pollutants created in mining operations. Mines and mining also have life cycles and supply chains that produce emissions and other pollutants well beyond just the mining.
In the ethical and moral senses some mining is hardly clean. If one looks at the child and slave labor used to extract cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo one can see those ethical issues very clearly. Millions have died in mineral conflicts in many parts of the world, but most particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Something will need to be done to reduce the chances of future minerals conflict as the tensions and pressures from minerals extraction increases.
Many of the countries where the minerals for the energy transition to renewables will be found have weak governance and are unstable to somewhat unstable developing or underdeveloped countries. Some, like Australia, a massive source of lithium and other minerals needed for the energy transition, do not have such issues, but these are more the exceptions to the rule.
When the world moves quickly, as it hopes to do in the coming decades, towards the energy transition, more companies and countries will have to deal with some challenging leadership in the countries that host the minerals. How many ethical and moral tradeoffs will happen? It is hard to tell, but clearly something must be done to reduce such ethical and moral quandaries and the conflicts and tensions they may bring.
As we move towards the energy transition, we also must consider the issues of justice and equity during the transition. Some indigenous and marginal groups could be the subject of injustice and abuse of their land rights. It has happened before. Think about how many mineral-rich countries have ethnic disputes that spill over into resource disputes.
Think about how the people of the Middle East were exploited for their oil resources for so many years, for example. Such exploitation and abuse could, and likely will, happen again in some minerals-rich countries.
A lot of water, land and air could be damaged along the way to the “clean energy” transition. Health could be damaged by the pollutants from the supply chains for the “clean energy.” The supply chains and lifecycles of renewables have water, air, land, carbon and climate footprints that many often disregard in drives towards change.
Every energy transition in the past had environmental, economic and other tradeoffs that needed to be considered. Many times, in the past, these externalities were disregarded until the social and environmental costs of those transitions became clear and very high, such as how CO2 and methane from the use of fossil fuels is driving the world toward inflection points on the road to climate change and how pollutants from coal have damaged the health of so many children and others.
The overall effects on economies, human development, human health, world ecosystems and more from the use of fossil fuels has become much clearer since the times of the transitions from wood and agricultural waste to coal to oil and natural gas and on the electricity and nuclear, as examples. A lot can be learned from past energy transitions. Let’s not forget those lessons learned.
There were times when the deadly coal fogs in London helped create more regulations and laws for the use of coal. Many laws and regulations were applied to reduce the damage from internal combustion engine transport across the world. Many laws and regulations were applied to reduce the environmental and human damage from electricity plants and their supply chains via coal, natural gas and oil over the last century.
The world has adjusted and made changes in many places, mostly in the rich, developed countries that can afford such environmental and social regulations and laws. Many developing and de-developing countries are not at those levels of governance. And a lot will be demanded of them as massive minerals investments pour into their countries as the future vast global competition for non-fossil minerals takes off.
Thankfully, the world has learned that much can be done to reduce the deleterious effects along energy supply chains. Circular carbon economies could be a way to reduce some of the social costs of fossil fuels and “clean energy” in the future. Yes, clean energy also produces CO2 emissions, not nearly as much as coal, oil and natural gas, per energy unit, but it is still has some along their supply chains and over the lifecycles.
One of the cleanest energy systems when it comes to CO2 emissions per unit of energy output is nuclear. And this includes its supply chains and its fuel cycles. But it has a waste fuel problem, but this could be at least partially dealt with by applying a circular economy approach to nuclear fuel via reprocessing and reuse.
Overall circular economies could be a way to reduce the social costs of the future drive towards renewables and the supply chains associate with them. As has been done for fossil fuels in many places the world needs to wake up to the social and global costs that could result from “clean energy” along its supply chains and lifecycles.
We need to be very careful not to create problems and costs by repeating our past mistakes. We need to focus on rational, scientific and fact-based management of the energy transition to come. The world could reuse, reduce, reprocess, recycle, and more to create a more sustainable, healthier, and cleaner future. The world deserves better than what it got in the past.
The social, environmental, and other costs from “clean energy” will likely be a lot less than what has happened so far from fossil fuels, barring serious minerals wars and some unintended and unpredicted consequences.
But they will not be zero.
There are cleaner energy systems, but not clean energy systems. Let us get the terminology right.
• Dr. Paul Sullivan is a senior research associate at KFCRIS and non-resident fellow, Global Energy Center, Atlantic Council.