Geology for Global Development

Energy

New mining frontiers: Digging into the unknown

New mining frontiers: Digging into the unknown

While climate change occupies the headlines as our biggest long-term concern for sustainability,  there may well be further anthropogenic challenges that arise in the next century as we disrupt the delicate interplay of natural ecological and geological cycles to satisfy the need for resources of our ever-growing population. The mining industry makes for a pertinent example: it sits on the verge of new key locations for digging – from the deep ocean to deep space – the consequences of which may not be fully explored.

The shift to a low-carbon economy is likely to entail an increase in demand for a wide variety of minerals. A 2017 report from the World Bank highlights the growth in demand for Lithium, Platinum and Lead, for new battery technology and rare earth element demand for solar and wind technology is also likely to increase.

As demand for these metals and resources rises, the cost and difficulty of extracting them rises too. Millennia of mining have exhausted the easy-to-access deposits for most metals, and the ratio of exploration sites that turn into actual mines is in the order of 1 in 1000. Combined with a decline in the overall quality of ore that is mined, it’s not hard to see why mining industry strategists are looking to previously unusable locations for their new mining ventures.

Geologists have known for a long time that the sea floor contains extensive mineral deposits of a wide variety of types; from ferro-manganese nodules to ores linked to submarine volcanism, economic minerals are spread across the global ocean floor. Until recently, the economics of dredging these sea beds for minerals have not been favourable, and technology has been too rudimentary to make an effective industry out of this approach. Now, however, prices and demand for these minerals are high enough that seafloor mining is beginning to take place in a few locations around the world.

Extraction like this could, of course, have major consequences. Biodiversity in the deep ocean is, even today, poorly understood, so strip mining these systems before we explore them fully could cause untold damage. At a small scale, this kind of mining might only have more limited, local impacts, but for the first time in the history of human society we have the capability to affect biological systems and geological cycles at a global scale, to a degree that might have significant and deleterious effects.

For example, mining waste on land can lead to contamination of local water supplies with acidic runoff. Deep sea mining could similarly lead to acidification of sea water, which could have far reaching consequences. Marine creatures living in the ocean are often very finely tuned to the chemistry of the water they’re bathed in; even small changes in acidity have been linked to increased coral bleaching and death. The risk of heavy metal pollution has also been pointed out from sand and mud kicked up by mining activity as it disturbs the sea bed; these toxic metals could cause problems both the sea life and to humans, as the fishery stocks would become increasingly exposed to heavy metals. The global extent of ocean currents mean that these effects wouldn’t be limited to the vicinity of the mining, as chemicals would be mixed into the whole ocean over time.

Unlike mining on the surface, the spread of this kind of pollution could be truly global; ocean currents could eventually spread the pollutants, and the mining itself would hardly be limited to a specific locality. Humans are poorly positioned to deal with this kind of crisis; a negative impact on the ocean – a global resource, not owned by any individual nation state – is a classic ‘tragedy of the commons’, much like carbon dioxide accumulation in the atmosphere. Given the lack of ownership of the oceans, individual states or mining companies lack strong incentives to regulate the exploitation of such sea-floor resources. Moreover, the globalised nature of the extractive industry means this could be a truly significant impact; the combined revenue of the top 40 surface mining companies is approximately half a trillion dollars, dwarfing all but the largest national economies, affording such corporations major financial clout to explore and develop mining on the sea floor.

At the dawn of the fossil fuel era in the Industrial revolution, the risks of burning coal, and later oil and gas, were poorly understood in comparison to today. Some authors suggest that since we are now much more aware of environmental issues, we are better placed to assess the future risks and rewards of deep sea mining than the earlier resources for which we mined and drilled.

It is perhaps worth pointing out, though, that with the range out impacts still poorly constrained even as dredging begins, it is incumbent upon geologists to explore and quantify the potential risks; academic research must keep pace with the growth of industry.

Even if deep sea mining does not have major, long-lasting impacts, there is one other mining frontier for which the risks are nearly totally unconstrained: asteroids.

It may sound like science fiction, but serious consideration is being given to mineral resources on near Earth asteroids. Given their potential value (some estimates – of the asteroid Psyche suggest mineral resources worth a quintillion dollars – an amount of money that’s basically inconceivable), it’s not surprising that enterprising drillers are looking up, as well as to the sea floor. Again, though, research into the potential geological hazards needs to be undertaken well before such ventures are carried out.

Our ever increasing environmental footprint has the potential to spread to new and poorly studied horizons, and we should endeavour not to make the same mistakes as we did with fossil fuels.

Robert Emberson is a science writer, currently based in Vancouver, Canada. He can be contacted via Twitter (@RobertEmberson) or via his website (www.robertemberson.com).

**This article expresses the personal opinion of the author. These opinions may not reflect official policy positions of Geology for Global Development.**

Demonstrating the Importance of Geoscience in the Transformation Towards Sustainable and Resilient Societies

Next week the UN Annual Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will discuss the science required for “transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies”. Discussions will focus on SDGs 6 (water and sanitation), 7 (energy), 11 (sustainable cities), 12 (responsible consumption and production) and 15 (life on land).  

This forum will bring together member states, civil society, the private sector, the scientific community, and United Nations entities. It aims to facilitate interactions, networks and partnerships to identify and examine needs and gaps in technologies, scientific cooperation, innovation and capacity-building to support the SDGs. We believe it is critical that the global geoscience community is represented, and will therefore attend and ensure a clear voice for geoscience at the heart of global development decision-making.

The natural environment is a key pillar of sustainable development. Research, innovation and improved communication and use of geological science (or ‘geoscience’) is therefore essential to delivering sustainable and resilient societies. For example,

  • Mapping and Understanding the Sub-Surface. In a sustainable and resilient society, interactions between the surface and sub-surface are understood and integrated into urban planning to ensure that development is safe, hazards are mitigated against, and environmental impact is minimised. Geological maps, geophysical surveys, and the integration of geoscience data to develop ground models can generate an understanding of the sub-surface and support effective urban planning.
  • Resource Management. In a sustainable and resilient society, everyone has sufficient and reliable access to energy, clean water, and the materials required for sustainable, resilient cities. This requires the identification and careful management of natural resources, including water, minerals, and building aggregates. The transition to renewable energies, such as solar panels and wind turbines, and electric transport will require a wide range of minerals, such as cadmium, lithium, molybdenum, selenium, and tellurium, as well as rare earth elements.
  • Waste Management. In a sustainable and resilient society, less pollutants are generated, and those that are generated are better managed to reduce the environmental impact of society. Pollutants can take many forms, and these can impact both the surface and sub-surface. For example, while mining may be necessary to supply the materials needed for green technologies, this can generate large amounts of waste which needs to be managed carefully to avoid chemicals leaching into groundwater.
  • Reducing Disaster Risk. In a sustainable and resilient society, the focus is on reducing risk (and preventing disasters), rather than accepting or increasing risk (and responding to disasters). Resilient communities, water supplies, energy infrastructure, and terrestrial ecosystems require effective disaster risk reduction. Research on the processes and potential impacts of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, landslides, subsidence, and other geological hazards can help stakeholders to understand and reduce risk.

Sustainable and resilient societies, therefore, depend on access to geoscience information and the expertise to interpret this, as well as meaningful engagement by the geoscience community. The networks and partnerships being developed at the UN next week, to identify how scientific cooperation and innovation can support the SDGs, need to include geoscientists working across a broad array of specialisms.

Since the SDGs were agreed in 2015, we have been at the forefront of mobilising and equipping the geological science community to engage and help deliver this vision. We are proud to continue our international leadership on this topic, and will be a champion of the geosciences next week at the UN Headquarters.

Follow updates on Twitter – #GfGDatUNHQ

Read more about this event: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/18157Forum_Concept_Note_April_26_draft.pdf

Read more about Geology and the Sustainable Development Goals: http://www.episodes.org/view/1835

Heather Britton: India’s Energy-Climate Dilemma

Heather Britton is one of our new writers, today reporting on a summary of this paper by Andrew J Apostoli and William A Gough, covering the difficulties of pursuing reduced greenhouse gas emissions whilst fuelling one of the largest populations on the planet – India. The actions of this country are contributing to the eventual achievement of UN Sustainable Development Goals 7 and 13 – Affordable and Clean Energy, and Climate Action respectively.

India makes up 18% of the world’s population (1.2 billion people) with this value predicted to rise to 1.5 billion by 2030. Like many countries in the Global South, India is currently reliant upon fossil fuels to meet its energy demands, but it lacks the natural resources to provide energy for its people in this way – already 80% of its oil is imported, and this is likely to increase in the coming years. On top of this, India’s current energy production is falling short of their present requirements, with only 44% of households having access to electricity and 600,000 villages yet to be connected to the national electricity network.

You could be forgiven for thinking, therefore, that reducing carbon emissions would not be a priority, with the more pressing issue of making sure all Indians have access to energy taking precedence. This, however, is far from the reality, and although per-capita emissions are predicted to increase significantly as a result of the demands of a growing population, India’s renewable energy sector is ranked fifth in the world (Figure 1), and plans are in place to ensure that this sector’s growth does not stop here.

Figure 1: Global renewable energy investments. Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment, 2016

Although a factor in this statistic is the huge (and expanding) population of the country, it seems that India truly are passionate about pursuing a sustainable future. A survey recently revealed that many Indian citizens were happy to pay a carbon tax due to their awareness of the environment and the problems it is currently facing. To some, the environmental conscience of the country is seen as exacerbating India’s energy problem – if India can’t generate enough energy to ensure that all of its people have access to a sizeable and dependable energy source, why restrict the use of some of the most reliable methods of energy generation on the planet? – Others however have seen it as an admirable step in pursuit of sustainable development.

India has adopted ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through climate change policies and financial incentives to promote the development of new renewable energy initiatives, but it is currently unclear whether this will be enough for India to overcome its present day energy difficulties and meet the environmental promises that they have made both to their public and the global community (e.g. pledging to reduce emissions by 20-25% by 2020, although this is not legally binding).

Figure 2: Smog in New Delhi, India. Source: Prakhar Misra (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The landscape and climate of India are well suited to many forms of renewable energy generation, making these options financially viable. It is clear that if India is to achieve its goal of supplying affordable energy to allow economic growth in an environmentally-conscious manner, renewable energy must be heavily invested in, enabling technological developments to be made in this industry.

The Indian government has produced a number of funding initiatives to encourage such investment: for example the ‘National Action Plan on Climate Change’ (NAPCC) was formed ‘to make India a prosperous and efficient economy that is self-sustaining for both present and future generations while confronting climate change’ (Apostoli and Gough, 2016). Its aims include reducing poverty, reducing the anthropogenic effects of climate change and developing technologies at a fast pace to ensure the regulation and mitigation of greenhouse gases.

Other funding initiatives include the coal tax, which has risen form 50 rupees per tonne of coal in 2010 to 400 rupees per tonne in 2016, the money from which is used to finance the national clean environment fund. Up to 2015 this fund had developed 46 clean energy initiatives, and has allowed further projects to take off since. In addition, tax-free bonds were offered from 2015-2016 for the financing of renewable energy initiatives, valued at around $800 million.

India therefore has succeeded in creating motivation for the development of renewable energy and has a plethora of methods of renewable energy generation available – the details for some of which I have outlined below:

Hydropower: With altitudes ranging from the highs of the Himalayas to lows of the Ganges delta, India’s landscape is perfectly suited to both large and small scale hydropower plants. As of 2013 17%  of the total electricity generated in India was from hydropower stations, second only to coal, demonstrating the potential for the development of this field in the future.

Solar: Sitting between the tropic of cancer and the equator, India is ideally situated for the generation of energy through the use of solar cells. Solar energy has the potential to surpass India’s annual energy consumption and allow it to become a global leader in solar energy, although the initial costs of the solar cells required is considerable. With schemes such as the ‘National Solar Mission’, aiming to have 22 GW of solar capacity by 2022, the solar sector in India is expected to expand rapidly.

Wind: There is huge potential for the wind industry. Wind generation is not only the largest growing renewable energy sector in India, but is also experiencing a recent rise in social acceptability, leading to the prediction that in 2020 wind energy will save 48 million tonnes of CO2.

Biomass: This is an incredibly important energy source for India, as 70% of the country’s population rely on it for energy. Currently, however, biomass is being used inefficiently, exposing children and women to high levels of indoor pollution. Policies have been developed to encourage more efficient and cleaner utilisation of this abundant fuel, but there is still a long way to go in improving the use of biomass.

Figure 3: Landscape of the Indian Himalaya, well suited to many methods of renewable energy generation. Source: Yuval Sadeh (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The progress in the renewable energy industry sounds promising, but as ever problems are arising. Last year the Indian state Tamil Nadu generated more energy using solar cells than it required – but this energy could not be passed on to other states as the grid was not sophisticated enough to  connect this excess of renewable energy to neighbouring states. It is clear that developing methods of renewable energy generation is of great importance, but without careful planning much of the future renewable energy generated may go to waste.

In conclusion, sustainable development is of pressing concern to India, a country which houses a significant proportion of the world’s poor. There is currently heavy demand for fossil fuels, as the country undergoes unprecedented economic growth, rapid population increase and industrialisation. This places pressure not only on the national grid, but on unsustainable resources which will be exhausted under current consumption rates.

In response to these challenges India has invested heavily in the deployment of renewable energy strategies. With a combination of financial incentives, taxes and subsidies, India has caused a surge in renewable energy schemes, working to exploit the country’s landscape. Although it is still in the early stages of development, India’s dedication towards renewable energy will result in greater energy security for the world’s second largest population, providing them with the independence to facilitate economic growth whilst reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. There is certainly more work to be done, but the impetus that India has demonstrated in finding solutions to their energy crisis will hopefully result in a happy ending for this sustainable development story.

Read more: Andrew J Apostoli and William A Gough, (2016) India’s Energy-Climate Dilemma: The Pursuit for Renewable Energy Guided by Existing Climate Change Policies, Journal of Earth Science & Climatic Change, 7:362.

**This article expresses the personal opinions of the author (Heather Britton). These opinions may not reflect an official policy position of Geology for Global Development. **

Wearing the Earth Down: The Environmental Cost of Fashion

Public Domain (https://pixabay.com/en/color-textile-fabric-tissue-2532495/)

Eloise Hunt is an Earth science student at Imperial College London, and coordinator of the GfGD University group there. Today we publish her first guest article for the GfGD blog, exploring the environmental cost of fashion.

When we think of pollution, we imagine raw sewage pumped into rivers, open-cast mines or oil spills. We don’t often think of our inconspicuous white shirt or new jeans.  But, the overall impact that the fashion industry has on our planet is shocking.  The production of clothing has been estimated to account for 10% of total carbon impact. The fashion industry has been argued to be “one of the greatest polluters in the world, second only to oil“, although there is a lack of data to verify this.

Following London Fashion Week 2017, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on the environmental impacts of the fashion industry. Whilst geoscience may not seem to link to fashion, once you look closer at the production and environmental costs of textiles, you can see they are coupled with situations where geoscientists may be involved. Geoscience alone cannot improve the world.  But, through collaborations between geoscientists, engineers and policy makers, real changes can take place.

The lack of sustainability in fashion can be blamed on four major factors.  Firstly, there is enormous energy consumption associated with clothing.  Production is concentrated in countries such as Bangladesh and China. Factories are powered by coal before garments are shipped to the rest of the world.  It is difficult to find reliable data on how much fuel is used to transport clothes.  Yet, we do know that in the US only 2% of clothing is domestically produced and globally 90% of fabrics are transported by cargo ship  (read more).  One of these ships can produce as much atmospheric pollution as 50 million cars in just one year.

Another major factor is cheap synthetic fibres increasingly replacing natural cotton or wool. Polyester and nylon are both synthetic, non-biodegradable, energy intensive and made from petrochemicals.  Polyester is rapidly increasing in value and is now in over half of all clothing. Nylon is absorbent and breathable making it a popular choice for sportswear manufacturers.  But, nylon production forms nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Viscose is another synthetic fibre which is derived from wood pulp; the material’s popularity in fashion has caused deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia.  These countries are home to rainforests, often described as the ‘lungs of the earth’, acting as our most effective carbon sink and oxygen source.

Even stepping away from synthetics, cotton is hardly innocent.  It is incredibly water intensive accounting for 2.6% of global water use. It takes 2,700 litres of water to produce the average cotton t-shirt. Furthermore, 99.3% of cotton growth uses fertilisers, which can cause runoff and eutrophication of waterways.  Uzbekistan, the 6th largest producer of cotton in the world, is an important example of ‘cotton catastrophe’.  In the 1950s, two rivers were diverted from the Aral Sea as a source of irrigation for cotton production.  As the sea dried up, it also became over-salinated and laden with fertiliser and pesticides as a result of agricultural runoff. Contaminated dust from the desiccated lake-bed saturated the air, creating a public health crisis with some studies linking this to abnormally high cancer rates. Groundwater up to 150 m deep has been polluted with pesticides and regional climate has become more extreme with colder winters and hotter summers.  Currently, water levels in the Aral are less than 10% of what they were 50 years ago (Fig. 1). Whilst this is a dramatic example of cotton farming, environmental problems have  occurred in other locations.

 

A comparison of the Aral Sea in 1989 (left) and 2014 (right). Credit: NASA. Collage by Producercunningham. PUBLIC DOMAIN

The final environmental issue with fashion is responsible consumption and production (SDG 11).  Water problems in cotton producing areas cannot be fixed without consumers being held responsible for ecological impacts in the producing areas.  Globally, 44% of water used for cotton growth and processing goes towards exports.  High demand produces 150 billion items of clothing annually, which equates to 20 new items per person every year. Then, on average, each garment is worn only 7 times before being dumped in landfill.  In the UK alone, £30 billion worth of clothing is buried unused in our closets.

Figure 2- Expanding childrens trousers to minimise clothes waste (Credit: Petit Pli website http://petitpli.com)

Faced with issues of energy consumption, the rise of synthetics, water consumption and fast fashion, it’s easy to feel powerless but with increased scrutiny come sustainable solutions. The UK James Dyson Award was recently bestowed upon the student inventor of Petit Pli, innovative children’s clothing with pleats which allows it to grow with children from four months to three years old (Fig. 2).  This could help tackle clothes waste and is a small yet significant thread of hope.  On an individual level, when you need new clothes opting for Fair Trade or organic fabrics is a simple way to minimise pesticide pollution and, in the case of cotton, reduce water consumption. Or, better yet choose second hand, vintage or upcycled items to prevent processing of more virgin fibres.

Fashion is not yet sustainable. We as consumers hold enormous power to persuade brands to make products that are clean, of high-quality and worth wearing.  People need to be taking fashion more seriously, not less.

**This article expresses the personal opinions of the author. These may not reflect official policy positions of Geology for Global Development. **