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17 Nov 2022

Andreas Prevodnik and Marie Stjernquist Desatnik, Swedish Society for Nature Conservation

Life cycle assessments of renewable energy tech crucial to limit negative environmental & health impacts

The global energy system must transition to one based on renewable energy for the world to have a chance to stay below the 1.5-degree target. It is imperative that this transition happens in a just, inclusive, and environmentally friendly way, while also providing access to electricity to the 700 million people that currently live without it.

Renewable energy has many benefits in terms of security of supply, affordability, and climate impacts. A large share of the mineral materials needed for renewable energy technologies can be found in countries in Africa such as Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Zambia. From a social perspective it is imperative that the extraction of these minerals does not result in a new era of resource exploitation. A just energy transition (JET) to renewables is rather well-understood in terms of socio-economic aspects, however, less attention has been paid to environmental and health impacts. A report commissioned by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation covers environmental impacts of technologies for producing and storing renewable energy (RE technologies) and makes suggestions for policy elements that should be put in place to support the JET in an environmentally sustainable way.

RE technologies depend on hazardous chemicals, including metals limited in supply. To sustain the transformation of the energy sector, the demand for these chemicals and metals will drastically increase. This has many potentially negative environmental and health implications: the need for opening new mines, pollution from manufacturing operations, and stockpiling of hazardous mining waste & waste from RE technologies chief among them. These are the impacts that are highly relevant to poor and already disadvantaged communities that are supposed to be primary beneficiaries of the JET.

Life cycles of materials and their constituent chemicals (inherent or deliberately added) are inseparable. This condition is captured by the Sustainable Development Goal targets 12.4 and 12.5, although often not well-understood by many decision makers. Sound life cycle management of materials is impossible unless conditions for sound life cycle management of chemicals are simultaneously put in place.

Transparency for the presence of hazardous chemicals in materials supports work to substitute them with less hazardous alternatives and make arguments for restrictions and bans. It is the key to informed decisions for all life stages of RE technologies, from the choice of materials in the design of the technologies, to management of waste, to reuse and recycling.

The experts behind the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation report put strong emphasis on the need for life cycle assessments (LCAs) of RE technologies and circular economy strategies to limit negative environmental and health impacts and maximize material resource efficiencies for limited raw materials. The report outlines strategic actions and scale of actions, which give concrete ideas for non-governmental organizations and communities wanting to engage in policy development for an environmentally sustainable JET.

Andreas Prevodnik, Senior Policy Advisor, Chemicals, Swedish Society for Nature Conservation
Marie Stjernquist Desatnik, Senior Policy Advisor, Climate Change, Swedish Society for Nature Conservation