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Climate solutions could cause their own problems

World leaders are pondering unprecedented moves to combat global warming by speeding up the transition to clean tech — but they're also learning more about the potential downsides of those changes.

Why it matters: The changes will be needed to avoid the most dire climate scenarios. But there are potential environmental, human rights, and geopolitical risks to shifting how we get around, the way the electric grid operates, and how everything from cement is made to buildings are constructed.


What they're saying: "It's important to recognize that decarbonizing our economy will not be small and beautiful; replacing all of our fossil fuel infrastructure with clean energy will be big and messy," Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, told Axios via email.

  • "Getting to net-zero [emissions] by 2050 will require building a huge amount of new things incredibly quickly, and will entail lots of conflicts with some traditional environmental priorities."

The big picture: Perhaps the best-known problem companies and countries are facing is how to source the critical minerals needed for batteries that will be used to power electric cars, planes, energy storage devices, and more.

  • Mining for these minerals on land — including cobalt, lithium, manganese and graphite — can cause pollution and are often unsafe. In some places, like in China and the Congo, it caninvolve forced or child labor.
  • Efforts are underway to consider how to mine the seabed for rare Earth minerals, but here too, there's potential for environmental destruction — in this case, a danger to sea life.
  • The minerals are needed for electric vehicle batteries, but they're also in demand for other critical projects. These include the construction of vast arrays of wind turbines and solar photovoltaicfarms.

Cleanly and ethically producing batteriesis far from the only challenge facing countries as they move to decarbonize.

  • Other technologies also threaten biodiversity by extracting resources and taking up large amounts of land — including biomass energy with carbon capture and storage, known as BECCS. This involves extracting energy from biomass, such as certain crops grown for this purpose, and capturing and storing the carbon.
  • Mining for critical minerals is also more energy intensive than mining for bulk metals — which means they could actually increase carbon emissionsas demand grows.
  • Right now we're hurtling toward an economy that will be far more dependent on a steady supply of these materials, but they're not evenly distributed worldwide, presenting geopolitical challenges. For example,the vast majority of the world's supply of refined cobalt comes from China, and China produces the most rare Earth minerals overall.
  • The U.S. is trying to mine more rare Earth minerals domestically or secure additional supplies abroad.

How it works: Since 2010, the average amount of minerals needed for a new unit of power generation has increased by 50%, according to an IEA report published in May.

  • The IEA found that a scenario in which the world reaches net zero carbon emissions by 2050 "would require six times more mineral inputs in 2040 than today."

What's next: The IEA warned that there need to be "broad and sustained efforts" to improve the environmental and social performance of mineral supply chains.

  • The report also recommends more recycling programs and stronger environmental and human rights standards that help steer economic rewards to responsible suppliers.

The bottom line: The decisions we make now to invest in new clean energy technologies and reduce greenhouse gas emissions will dictate how much warming-related disruption and damage we endure, and any associated clean tech complications we will experience during the next several decades.

  • Ultimately, the concerns related to the energy transition pale in comparison to the far-reaching harms that would be caused by letting human-caused global warming to continue to escalate.

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Why the startup world needs to ditch "unicorns" for "dragons"

When Aileen Lee originally coined the term "unicorn" in late 2013, she was describing the 39 "U.S.-based software companies started since 2003 and valued at over $1 billion by public or private market investors."

Flashback: It got redefined in early 2015 by yours truly and Erin Griffith, in a cover story for Fortune, as any privately-held startup valued at $1 billion or more. At the time, we counted 80 of them.

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Scoop: Facebook's new moves to lower News Feed's political volume

Facebook plans to announce that it will de-emphasize political posts and current events content in the News Feed based on negative user feedback, Axios has learned. It also plans to expand tests to limit the amount of political content that people see in their News Feeds to more countries outside of the U.S.

Why it matters: The changes could reduce traffic to some news publishers, particularly companies that post a lot of political content.

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Scoop: Amazon quietly getting into live audio business

Amazon is investing heavily in a new live audio feature that's similar to other live audio offerings like Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces and Spotify's new live audio platform, sources tell Axios.

Why it matters: As with Amazon's efforts in podcasting and music subscriptions, the company sees live audio as a way to bolster the types of content it can offer through its voice assistant, Alexa, and its smart speaker products.

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Hurricane Ida exposes America's precarious energy infrastructure

The powerful hurricane that plunged New Orleans into darkness for what could be weeks is the latest sign that U.S. power systems are not ready for a warmer, more volatile world.

The big picture: “Our current infrastructure is not adequate when it comes to these kinds of weather extremes,” Joshua Rhodes, a University of Texas energy expert, tells Axios.

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"We must go further": 70% of adults in European Union are fully vaccinated

About 70% of adults in the European Union are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said Tuesday.

Why it matters: The milestone makes the E.U. one of the world's leaders in inoculations, after an initially lagging vaccine campaign, the New York Times notes.

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What Elizabeth Holmes jurors will be asked ahead of fraud trial

Jury selection begins today in USA v. Elizabeth Holmes, with the actual jury trial to get underway on Sept. 8.

Why it matters: Theranos was the biggest fraud in Silicon Valley history, putting both hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of patients' health at risk.

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