We need to acknowledge that our climate and conservation goals are not always aligned

Some low-carbon solutions can damage the natural world. Ignoring this will only harm the environmental cause

April 23, 2021
Photo: Realimage / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Realimage / Alamy Stock Photo

Lately, I have been hearing a recurring argument from those who oppose the transition to a low-carbon economy, pointing to the negative impacts of certain low-carbon solutions on the natural environment. The argument goes: given the identifiable environmental harm some low-carbon solutions cause, the “green lobby” is hypocritical and its ideas should be ignored. What is essentially being pointed out is that our climate and conservation goals are not always aligned.

For those of us who want to see bolder action on climate change, failing to openly acknowledge these criticisms does nothing to advance the environmental cause. By sweeping our opponents’ accusations under the proverbial rug, we legitimise their arguments.

This is a major year for both climate change and conservation, with the hosting of the COP15 and COP26 conferences—the former addressing the decline of the world’s natural environment and the latter, in Glasgow this autumn, providing an opportunity for further international agreements to mitigate climate change. Climate change and biodiversity loss are, of course, interlinked crises which partly share common solutions.

Nature-based solutions can mitigate climate change and bolster resilience to its effects through the restoration of the natural environment. One such example is planting more trees in order to sequester carbon. But there are many others.

Mangroves, marshes and reefs can be restored to buffer coasts and absorb flood waters which occur more frequently as a result of climate change. Green spaces in and around cities can be expanded to improve air quality and reduce stresses from the urban heat island effect as global temperatures rise. We can re-establish wetlands to absorb and filter flood waters that reduce agricultural yields and lead to water contamination.

However, nature-based solutions have their limitations. They cannot, for instance, decarbonise our transport sector or green our electricity grid. Decarbonising these sectors can, in fact, damage the natural environment. Our climate and conservation goals are not always aligned.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are widely recognised as the pathway for decarbonising passenger vehicles. Lithium-ion batteries, the batteries used to power EVs, are manufactured from metals including cobalt and nickel. Extracting these metals harms the natural environment. Lithium requires huge quantities of water to mine—up to two million litres per metric tonne of lithium extracted—polluting the water in the process.

A recent argument between BMW and DeepGreen—an organisation which seeks to extract metals used in lithium-ion batteries from the seafloor—encapsulates the “climate or conservation” dilemma. Concerned with the effect on the marine environment, BMW has supported a moratorium on seafloor mining, while DeepGreen says that the demand for metals will only grow and that seafloor mining has a smaller environmental impact than land-based mining.

One thing is certain: demand for such metals is on the rise, as more EVs come to market over the next decade. Forecasts suggest that by 2030, over 30m EVs will be sold globally each year. And it’s not only EVs that will drive demand for these metals. As countries green their electricity grids through greater adoption of renewable energy sources, large-scale lithium-ion batteries will be required to store excess energy for days when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.

Renewable energy sources themselves can hurt the natural environment. It is often noted that wind turbines' spinning blades pose a threat to birds. But perhaps more significant is the impact of hydro dams.

Hydro dams are a source of high-megawatt, low-carbon renewable electricity. But damming a river creates changes in river flow, with environmental repercussions. These include: the destruction of aquatic species’ habitats through flooding or drying out an area; changes to the migration patterns of aquatic life; an increase in water temperatures and unwanted chemicals; and less water clarity due to erosion, making it harder for aquatic life to find food.

It’s not just wind or hydro power. Solar power generation can also damage the natural environment. Solar panels often contain lead, cadmium and other toxic materials. These can contaminate soil if disposed of incorrectly or in landfill, where solar panels often end up because the cost of recycling them exceeds the value of the materials recovered through the recycling process. This disposal method is set to become an increasingly critical issue: the International Renewable Energy Agency forecasts that up to 78m metric tonnes' worth of solar panels will have reached the end of their life by 2050.

These are but a few examples of the “climate or conservation” dilemma. Of course, even when accounting for their wider environmental impacts, these low-carbon solutions remain the better choice compared to carbon-intensive alternatives, which will continue to exacerbate the effects of climate change and harm the natural environment anyway.

By not shying away from the reality that our climate and conservation goals are not always aligned, we can avoid giving legitimacy to those who oppose the transition to a low-carbon economy. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.