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The complexity of environmental impact calculations

In climate science, everything is about trade-offs. By now, researchers realise that there is really no technology that does not harm the earth, sea or atmosphere.

Published: 23rd December 2021 01:09 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd December 2021 08:02 AM   |  A+A-

Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha

When climate change and global warming decisions began initially, policymakers quickly zeroed in on emissions of various greenhouse gases as the primary culprit. Fuels were quickly labelled as dirty or clean, largely based on the emissions. Solar, wind and hydro were clean, green and renewable sources of power whereas coal and petroleum were big villains. Natural gas was also bad, though not as bad as coal or crude oil.

Since then, great strides have been made in terms of solar and wind farms, rooftop solar, and lithium-ion batteries to store power and electric vehicles (EVs) that will not use dirty petrol or diesel and hence help cut emissions that are contributing to global warming.

The focus on emissions has also helped in reaching multiple broad agreements between groups of countries, though not a total consensus. Ambitious targets of emission cuts and replacement of dirty fuels with clean ones have been set.

But as climate researchers assess the environmental impact of different activities, they are pointing out that the issues are not as black and white as policymakers—especially those in developed countries—like to think. Multiple questions have cropped up: How clean are clean sources of energy? What is the long-term impact of mining activities done to fulfil the world’s increasing appetite for EVs and hence lithium batteries? Are petroleum and coal nearly as bad as they are painted to be?

Take for example the environmental footprint of solar panels. These have come to the forefront in the climate change battle as their prices keep going down, largely because of large-scale production in China. It took some time before people started looking at the environmental cost of cheaper solar panels. Many Chinese solar panel makers depended on cheap coal-fired power. Solar panels made using renewable sources of energy cost far more. Of late, many Chinese solar panel makers have started using alternative sources of energy but a vast majority of the panels currently installed globally don’t have as clean a footprint as many like to think.

Broaden the discussion from emissions to overall environmental impact and suddenly the calculations become even more trickier for solar panels. Photovoltaic cells contain cadmium, gallium, germanium, selenium, tellurium and other minerals. These, in turn, are often the by-products of mining and refining operations of other metals and minerals. Most of these mining and refining activities have a very significant environmental impact, and a lot of it is not emission -related. Beyond that, there is a matter of disposal of end-of-life solar panels. Recycling capacities have not yet caught up with the solar panel installations, and in a decade or so, we will be looking at another huge environmental problem because of discarded solar panels.

The story of solar panels is repeated in the case of wind turbines, with some changes here and there. Wind turbines generate clean power but the materials required for building them are hardly ecologically friendly.

The lithium question is even more complicated and shows how the interests of the developed countries can diverge from those of underdeveloped nations. The demand for lithium-ion batteries has shot up as developed countries have set ambitious goals for EV adoption. In turn, that has led to an increased focus on lithium mining and refining—white oil as it has been dubbed. That is good news economically but bad news on the environmental front for the Lithium Triangle countries—Chile, Argentina and Bolivia.

The EV race in the US and EU is giving rise to a mining boom in the Lithium Triangle countries that will leave a huge impact on the ecology of some regions. But it is a trade-off that is necessary to reduce the emissions by richer countries.

Meanwhile, what was once considered the dirtiest fuel source—coal—is getting a relook. Underground coal gasification and other clean coal technologies like carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) produce important fuels while reducing emissions to negligible proportions. Or take the case of grey and green hydrogen. The gas is considered one of the most promising clean fuels. The problem is that currently we produce what is dubbed “grey hydrogen”, which requires the gasification of coal or lignite. It is thus considered a dirty fuel. A somewhat cleaner hydrogen is the so-called “blue hydrogen”, which is produced by steam methane reformation with the emissions captured through CCUS technology. The holy grail for green scientists is “green hydrogen”, where the gas is made by the electrolysis of water. The only issue: The process is prohibitively expensive and impractical so far. Whether that will change in the coming decades is open to question though research is going on.

In climate science, everything is about trade-offs. By now, scientists and researchers realise that there is really no technology that does not harm the earth, sea or atmosphere. The issue is choosing those that do the least harm and also design ways to restore the damage being done. And that is what the climate battle is all about.

Prosenjit Datta, Senior business journalist (prosaicview@gmail.com)



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