Renewable energy isn’t perfect when it comes to environmental consequences, but it’s far better than fossil fuels. (submitted)

Renewable energy isn’t perfect when it comes to environmental consequences, but it’s far better than fossil fuels. (submitted)

Column David Suzuki: Renewable energy isn’t perfect, but it’s far better than fossil fuels

The image is a poor attempt to prove that renewable energy is worse for the environment

By David Suzuki

In their efforts to discredit renewable energy and support continued fossil fuel burning, many anti-environmentalists have circulated a dual image purporting to compare a lithium mine with an oilsands operation. It illustrates the level of dishonesty to which some will stoop to keep us on our current polluting, climate-disrupting path (although in some cases it could be ignorance).

The image is a poor attempt to prove that lithium batteries and renewable energy are worse for the environment than energy from oilsands bitumen. The first problem is that the “lithium mine” is actually BHP Billiton’s Escondida copper mine in Chile (the world’s largest). The bottom image is of an Alberta oilsands operation, but it’s an in situ underground facility and doesn’t represent the enormous open-pit mining operations used to extract most bitumen.

Lithium is used in batteries for electric cars, cellphones, computers and other electric devices, as well as power-grid storage systems, because it’s light and highly conductive. Most lithium isn’t mined. More than 95 per cent comes from pumping underground brine into pans, allowing the liquid to evaporate and separating out the lithium using electrolysis.

Any real comparison between oilsands and lithium batteries shows that oilsands products, from extracting and processing to transporting and burning, are by far the most destructive. Extraction and production destroy habitat, pollute air, land and water and produce greenhouse gas emissions. Burning the fuels causes toxic pollution and wreaks havoc with Earth’s climate.

Does that mean batteries are environmentally benign? No. All energy sources and technologies have some environmental impact — one reason energy conservation is crucial. A 2010 study comparing the environmental impacts of electric cars to internal combustion vehicles found the latter are far more damaging, taking into account global warming potential, cumulative energy demand and resource depletion. Battery components, including lithium, can also be recycled, and used electric car batteries can be repurposed to store energy for homes, buildings and power grids.

Lithium wasn’t found to be a major environmental factor for electric car batteries, but copper, aluminum, cobalt and nickel used in the batteries have high impacts. Materials used to make other car components, for electric and internal combustion vehicles, also come with environmental impacts.

The energy sources used to charge car batteries also determine the degree of environmental impact. If coal is the main source, negative effects are much higher than if the power comes from hydroelectric or renewables such as wind and solar. But the impacts are still lower than fuelling cars with gas.

One study found using lithium for a rapidly expanding electric vehicle market, as well as numerous other products and devices, could cause supplies to become scarce. As with fossil fuels, this means more destructive methods, such as mining, would be required. But these arguments are more against private automobiles than batteries. Electric vehicles are part of the short-term solution, but reducing environmental damage from transportation, including climate disruption, will require shifting as much as possible to better alternatives such as public transit, cycling and walking.

We still need batteries, though. Storage systems are essential to making the best of renewable energy. They make power available when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Finding ways to make them — and other renewable energy components such as solar panels and wind turbines — with minimal environmental impact is a challenge. Some components in electric vehicles and solar panels use “rare metals”, which are often mined in ways that damage the environment and endanger miners. But these materials are frequently used in newer internal combustion vehicles, too.

Part of the solution is to improve labour and environmental standards in mining operations — a challenge considering many materials are mined in Africa by Chinese companies that put profit above human health and the environment.

The good news is that renewable energy and storage technologies are advancing rapidly, with attention paid to the environmental impacts of materials used to make them. The ability to recycle batteries and their components is also improving but needs to get better.

Renewable energy is already far better environmentally than fossil fuel energy. It’s time to shift from current massive fossil fuel support and subsidies to making renewable energy as clean and available as possible.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Cowichan Valley School District is holding an online session to discuss the future of Koksilah Elementary School, closed since 2013. (File photo)
What’s the future of the old Koksilah Elementary School?

The district is hoping to collect feedback on options for the future of the school.

Jim Neiser of Neiser Sales, Service & Rentals Ltd. died suddenly on Jan. 4. after suffering an apparent cardiac event at work. (Submitted photo)
Prominent Lake Cowichan businessman Jim Neiser dead at 63

Lake Cowichan Mayor Bob Day said the long-time laker will be missed.

The Judy Hill Gallery took home top prize for its window display during the Christmas season from the Downtown Duncan BIA. (Submitted photo)
Business notes: Judy Hill Gallery wins festive window display contest

A look at what’s going on in the Cowichan business community

Environment Canada is forecasting snow for the east Vancouver Island region the weekend of Jan. 23. (Black Press file)
Up to 15 cm of snow forecast for Duncan area this weekend

Snow to begin Saturday night, according to Environment Canada

Sorting food to deliver to community members isolating due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Back row from left: Philomena Wilson, Sosefina Aleck, Ethan Wilson and Lucetta Wilson. In front is Kennedy Aleck. (Submitted)
“Let’s share a meal even if I can’t sit with you”: Cowichan woman’s food drive helps feed members in isolation

Positive response to missing ceremonies and rising racism benefits dozens of households

Toronto Public Health nurse Lalaine Agarin sets up for mass vaccination clinic in Toronto, Jan. 17, 2021. B.C. is set to to begin its large-scale immunization program for the general public starting in April. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
B.C.’s COVID-19 mass vaccinations expected to start in April

Clinics to immunize four million people by September

Emergency crews were called to a semi-truck crash along the Trans-Canada Highway at Oyster Sto’Lo Road on Friday, Jan. 22. (Cole Schisler/Black Press)
Semi truck crashes off the side of the highway in Ladysmith

Driver taken to hospital as precaution after single-vehicle crash Friday

Police are searching for an alleged sex offender, Nicole Edwards, who they say has not returned to her Vancouver halfway house. (Police handout)
Police hunt for woman charged in ‘horrific’ assault who failed to return to Surrey halfway house

Call 911 immediately if you see alleged sex offender Nicole Edwards, police say

A screenshot from a local Instagram account video. The account appeared to be frequented by Mission students, and showed violent videos of students assaulting and bullying other students.
Parents, former students describe ‘culture of bullying’ in Mission school district

Nearly two dozen voices come forward speaking of abuse haunting the hallways in Mission, B.C.

Joe Biden, then the U.S. vice-president, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take their seats at the start of the First Ministers and National Indigenous Leaders meeting in Ottawa, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau, Biden to talk today as death of Keystone XL reverberates in Canada

President Joe Biden opposed the Keystone XL expansion as vice-president under Barack Obama

Prince Edward Island’s provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, Friday July 3, 2020. A lozenge plant in Prince Edward Island has laid off 30 workers, citing an “almost non-existent” cold and cough season amid COVID-19 restrictions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘Almost non-existent’ cold and cough season: P.E.I. lozenge plant lays off 30 workers

The apparent drop in winter colds across the country seems to have weakened demand for medicine and natural remedies

Robert Riley Saunders. (File)
Disgraced Kelowna social worker faces another class-action lawsuit

Zackary Alphonse claims he was not informed of resources available to him upon leaving government care

A specialized RCMP team is investigating a suspicious trailer, which might have connections to the illicit drug trade, found abandoned outside a Cache Creek motel. (Photo credit: <em>Journal</em> files)
Police probe U-Haul trailer linked to illicit drugs left outside Cache Creek motel

Hazardous materials found inside believed to be consistent with the production of illicit drugs

Premier John Horgan leaves the podium following his first press conference of the year as he comments on various questions from the media in the Press Gallery at B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, January 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interprovincial travel restrictions a no-go, Horgan says after reviewing legal options

The B.C. NDP government sought legal advice as concerns of travel continue

Most Read