Thomas M. Kostigen is a New York Times bestselling environmental author whose latest book is Hacking Planet Earth: How Geoengineering Can Help Us Reimagine the Future.
The clean-energy transition is under way, but like any worthwhile undertaking, it isn’t going to be simple. The European Union alone is planning to spend US$1.1-trillion over the next decade to transition to a clean-energy economy. China plans to spend trillions more to become carbon neutral by 2060. Alternative energy investments and government policy scenarios could drive electric vehicle sales to 245 million by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency.
Meanwhile, the World Bank estimates the production of minerals needed for this transition could increase by as much as 500 per cent by 2050. Electric vehicles and clean energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal power require copious amounts of metals. Batteries, especially, use special minerals to store power.
Terrestrial mining is where most of these minerals come from today. But terrestrial mining isn’t a particularly clean business. To get the minerals needed to manufacture just one electric car battery, for example, 500,000 pounds of material must be extracted and processed – treated with harmful chemicals that can result in rivers of tailings, including mercury and arsenic residues. Moreover, when soil is dug up, the carbon it stores is released into the atmosphere. And the potential for that soil storing more carbon is also lost. The result is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which of course increases the global temperature.
The solution for a truly cleaner climate, then, may lie at the bottom of the ocean.
Specifically, nodules on the sea floor can provide the billions of tonnes of minerals we need to fuel the green transition. These beds of nodules can simply be collected and processed into high-demand metals with minimal effects on the seabeds, and any carbon dioxide that is released is unlikely to reach the atmosphere from the extreme depths of four to six kilometres. One relatively small area in particular – the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – is home to trillions of such nodules, enough to electrify a global vehicle fleet several times over.
These nodules contain four of the base metals – nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese – that are most needed for batteries and other clean power sources. Compared to terrestrial mining, deep sea nodule collecting could reduce global warming potential by 90 per cent with zero solid waste or tailings, according to a study in the Journal of Cleaner Production. Those benefits, along with the carbon-emission savings, are why deep sea nodules should be further explored and embraced.
Exploration has already begun. The International Seabed Authority has issued 18 licences to organizations for nodule exploration only. It should fast-track extraction programs.
China, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are by far the world’s biggest suppliers of most of the critical minerals for the clean-tech revolution. The United States lags far behind, so much so that the White House last month issued an executive order to step up critical mineral extraction efforts. Mining executives, however, say it will take years to catch up. The Canadian government, too, has acknowledged the importance of these critical minerals, listing them as a priority in the mandate letter of the Minister of Natural Resources.
The Industrial Revolution brought about our current climate crisis because the after-effects of burning fossil fuels weren’t considered. The clean-energy revolution needs to do better and must consider any and all consequences at every stage of the manufacturing and power process, from extraction to emissions. Otherwise, we are just flipping the energy equation by employing dirty mineral mining in exchange for cleaner emissions. The result will be the same: an increasingly uninhabitable climate for us all.
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