It is better to exploit the world’s tropical forests than to cultivate them
While the COP27 climate conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh next week is expected to increase attention to the climate needs of developing countries, it raises fears that there is not enough land to manage abandonment of fossil fuels. Much of the world’s reserves of nickel, an essential metal for making electric vehicle batteries, lie beneath the rainforests of Southeast Asia. Some 6,732 km2 of Indonesian forest has been granted nickel mining concessions, a coalition of environmental groups wrote in a July letter to Tesla Inc.
An “honest and comprehensive assessment of the entire lifecycle of clean-energy cars” would show a “negative societal and environmental impact” on land, Michael Heberling, an academic at Michigan’s Baker College, noted this year.
Mining certainly involves the destruction of the land around it. Even when ores are extracted from underground rather than surface mines, the tailings, processing facilities and transportation infrastructure around them consume many acres of countryside.
Yet the challenges of preserving global ecosystems are so vast that we risk looking at only a small part of the elephant, rather than the whole beast. Almost all economic activities incur some kind of environmental cost. The question is not to find free activities, but to identify those that maximize the associated social and economic benefits.
At the outset, it should be considered that the quantities of raw materials that we use each year vary considerably: around 8.2 billion tonnes of coal and 4.2 billion tonnes of oil; 1.2 billion tons of maize and 780 million tons of wheat; 25 million tons of copper and 2.7 million tons of nickel; 3,000 tons of gold and 180 tons of platinum.
That doesn’t tell the whole story, however. Nickel ores contain about a thousand times more metal per ton than gold ores, so the much lower output from the gold industry translates into a roughly similar volume of waste rock. Then there is the matter of surface disturbance: raw materials mined from open pits such as iron ore have a much larger footprint than those like platinum which are mainly extracted from deep underground. The oil and gas extracted from the bottom of the ocean does not occupy a single hectare of land, except for what is used for transportation and onshore processing.
Considered in terms of land intensity – the number of hectares needed to meet humanity’s needs – it is clear that minerals are still a very efficient use of space. All the mines in the world cover just 101,583 square kilometres, according to a study this year based on satellite observations – an area smaller than the area we use to grow oats and equals less than 0.2 % of global agricultural land.
Another consideration is how often the product is reused. The 50 kg of nickel in an electric car battery will be used over and over again over the tens of thousands of miles the vehicle will travel, and then may well be recycled for other uses when the vehicle is scrapped. The 50 liters of gasoline in your fuel tank, on the other hand, will need to be topped up several thousand times before the car is taken to the scrapyard. Agricultural land, for all the vast areas it consumes, can produce the same volumes year after year, and even increase over time as agricultural yields improve.
Energy is an important and related consideration. If your electric car is charged with electricity generated by burning coal, it will likely have a much larger land footprint than with nuclear, wind or gas-fired electricity – both because coal is lavish in terms of demands for land and because its supplies must be constantly replenished by digging still more coal. Solar energy, for all its benefits in terms of carbon emissions, also eats away at a lot of land.
A final consideration is to think about the cost of land use as well as its benefits. All land is not created equal. About 60% of global carbon biomass is stored in forests, and 22% in grasslands and savannas. Keeping this carbon locked up in living tissue rather than venting it into the atmosphere is a particular burden on low-income tropical countries, which have some of the largest forest reserves and some of the greatest consumption needs of land as an input. in economic growth.
This is where the rest of the world has a role to play. Economic development requires not only land, but also improvements in labour, capital and productivity. Most emerging countries do not lack labor, but the capital needed to effectively develop the land and move their economies up the productivity value chain is far too scarce. The promises rich countries made a decade ago to provide $100 billion in annual investments to the rest of the world to decarbonise and adapt to the effects of climate change have still not been fulfilled.
If rich countries want tropical forest land that has already been cleared to be used more efficiently – and, if possible, returned to its natural state – then they will need more, not less, capital-intensive activities. . Mining is not exempt from environmental impacts. But it’s much better than most alternatives.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• Even a Lula win may not restore Brazil’s forests: David Fickling
• To save the planet, poor countries must be paid: Mihir Sharma
• Giant sequoias are built to withstand fire, but not these fires: Faye Flam
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and commodities. Previously, he worked for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.
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