Renewable energy production will exacerbate mining threats to biodiversity

Renewable energy production is necessary to halt climate change and reverse associated biodiversity losses. However, generating the required technologies and infrastructure will drive an increase in the production of many metals, creating new mining threats for biodiversity.

Sonter, L.J., Dade, M.C., Watson, J.E.M. et al. Renewable energy production will exacerbate mining threats to biodiversity. Nat Commun 11, 4174 (2020)

Climate change poses serious threats to biodiversity. To keep temperature increases below 2 °C, and halt associated biodiversity losses, 140 nations committed to the Paris Climate Change Accord to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by 90% (from 2010 levels) and reach carbon neutrality by 2100.

Energy sector innovation is where most progress is achievable, but since renewable energies currently account for only 17% of global energy consumption, significant production increases must occur to phase out fossil fuel use. However, the production of renewable energies is also material-intensive—much more so than fossil fuels—meaning that future production will also escalate demand for many metals. It is unlikely that these new demands will be met by diverting use from other sectors or from recycling materials alone. When required commodities exist in biodiverse countries that lack strong resource governance, such as the world’s second largest untouched lithium reserve in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt pan—a biodiverse area currently untouched by mining—mining poses serious threats to species and ecosystems15.

This paper maps mining areas and assesses their spatial coincidence with biodiversity conservation sites and priorities. Mining potentially influences 50 million km2 of Earth’s land surface, with 8% coinciding with Protected Areas, 7% with Key Biodiversity Areas, and 16% with Remaining Wilderness. Most mining areas (82%) target materials needed for renewable energy production, and areas that overlap with Protected Areas and Remaining Wilderness contain a greater density of mines (our indicator of threat severity) compared to the overlapping mining areas that target other materials.

Mining threats to biodiversity will increase as more mines target materials for renewable energy production and, without strategic planning, these new threats to biodiversity may surpass those averted by climate change mitigation.