The downside of renewable energy

Rox Pena
Rox Pena

I watched the “Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho” (KMJS) TV program last April 14, 2024, which featured the large-scale mining activity in Homonhon Island in the Province of Eastern Samar. There are mining operations too in other parts of the country, but this one is of public interest because the island has historical significance. It was here that Ferdinand Magellan first landed in the Philippines on March 16, 1521.

Residents of Homonhon are complaining that mining activities in the island is affecting their livelihood and health. The farmers said that the dust from the mining operations is decreasing their calamansi harvest, their main source of livelihood. Once the calamansi flowers get covered in dust, they don't survive.

According to the KMJS report, large-scale mining operations in Homonhon started in 1983. There are at present four mining companies on the island. They mine nickel ore, one of the minerals used to make solar panels which are in high demand because of the transition to renewable energy. It is also used in lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles and energy storage.

Producing equipment needed to harness renewable energy requires large quantities of minerals which are sourced from mineral-rich countries like the Philippines. According to GlobalData, the Philippines is the world’s second-largest producer of nickel in 2022. The Philippines accounts for 12% of global production, with the largest producers being Indonesia, Russia, New Caledonia and Australia.

It's not only nickel. The Philippines has the world’s fourth-largest copper reserves, fifth-biggest nickel deposits, and cobalt, all of which are important in clean energy technologies, from lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles to solar panels.

With increasing demand for renewable energy, more minerals are needed, and consequently, more mining activities. According to a study by United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), global investments in critical energy transition minerals are not keeping pace with escalating demand. The demand for critical energy transition minerals like lithium, cobalt and copper could increase almost fourfold by 2030.

The UNCTAD said that current production levels are inadequate to meet the needs required to limit global warming to 1.5°C, in line with the Paris Agreement. To achieve the 2030 net-zero emission targets, the industry may need around 80 new copper mines, 70 new lithium and nickel mines each, and 30 new cobalt mines.

Here lies the problem. Mineral extraction is an environmentally invasive process. Environmental groups are against it. In Homonhon, even the Catholic church has joined the protest against mining in the island. Another concern is that around two-thirds of the mineral reserves in the Philippines are on indigenous lands.

Is mining a necessary evil for progress? Is it a bitter pill to swallow to halt climate change? How will policy makers balance the situation?

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