Renewable energy can save the natural world – but if we’re not careful, it will also hurt it



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Laura Sonter, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland, and Richard K Valenta, The University of Queensland

A vast transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is crucial to slowing climate change. But building solar panels, wind turbines and other renewable energy infrastructure requires mining for materials. If not done responsibly, this may damage species and ecosystems.

In our research, published today, we mapped the world’s potential mining areas and assessed how they overlap with biodiversity conservation sites.

We found renewable energy production will exacerbate the threat mining poses to biodiversity – the world’s variety of animals and plants. It’s fair to assume that in some places, the extraction of renewables minerals may cause more damage to nature than the climate change it averts.

Australia is well placed to become a leader in mining of renewable energy materials and drive the push to a low-carbon world. But we must act now to protect our biodiversity from being harmed in the process.

A wind farm
Renewable energy infrastructure such as wind farms are good for the planet – but it requires minerals extraction.
Shutterstock

Mining to prevent climate change

Currently, about 17% of current global energy consumption is achieved through renewable energy. To further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this proportion must rapidly increase.

Building new renewable energy infrastructure will involve mining minerals and metals. Some of these include:

  • lithium, graphite and cobalt (mostly used in battery storage)
  • zinc and titanium (used mostly for wind and geothermal energy)
  • copper, nickle and aluminium (used in a range of renewable energy technologies).

The World Bank estimates the production of such materials could increase by 500% by 2050. It says more than 3 billion tonnes of minerals and metals will be needed to build the wind, solar and geothermal power, and energy storage, needed to keep global warming below 2℃ this century.

However, mining can seriously damage species and places. It destroys natural habitat, and surrounding environments can be harmed by the construction of transport infrastructure such as roads and railways.

An evaporation pond used to measure lithium and in the Uyuni salt desert in Bolivia.
An evaporation pond used to measure lithium and in the Uyuni salt desert in Bolivia. Mining can damage the environment if not done sustainably.
Dado Galdieri/AP

What we found

We mapped areas around the world potentially affected by mining. Our analysis involved 62,381 pre-operational, operational, and closed mines targeting 40 different materials.

We found mining may influence about 50 million km² of Earth’s land surface (or 37%, excluding Antarctica). Some 82% of these areas contain materials needed for renewable energy production. Of this, 12% overlaps with protected areas, 7% with “key biodiversity areas”, and 14% with remaining wilderness.

Our results suggest mining of renewable energy materials may increase in currently untouched and “biodiverse” places. These areas are considered critical to helping species overcome the challenges of climate change.

Areas around the world potentially influenced by mining
Areas potentially influenced by mining, including for the minerals needed in renewable energy production (shown in blue). See paper for detailed methodology and limitations.
Authors provided

Threats here and abroad

Australia is well positioned to become a leading supplier of materials for renewable energy. We are also one of only 17 nations considered ecologically “megadiverse”.

Yet, many of the minerals needed for renewable energy exist in important conservation areas.

For example, Australia is rich in lithium and already accounts for half of world production. Hard-rock lithium mines operate in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

This area has also been identified as a national biodiversity hotspot and is home to many native species. These include small marsupials such as the little red antechinus and the pebble-mound mouse, and reptiles including gecko and goanna species.




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Australia is also ranked sixth in the world for deposits of rare earth elements, many of which are needed to produce magnets for wind turbines. We also have large resources of other renewables materials such as cobalt, manganese, tantalum, tungsten and zirconium.

It’s critical that mining doesn’t damage Australia’s already vulnerable biodiversity, and harm the natural places valued by Indigenous people and other communities.

In many cases, renewables minerals are found in countries where the resource sector is not strongly regulated, posing an even greater environmental threat. For example, the world’s second-largest untouched lithium reserve exists in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt pan. This naturally diverse area is mostly untouched by mining.

The renewables expansion will also require iron and steel. To date, mining for iron in Brazil has almost wiped out an entire plant community, and recent dam failures devastated the environment and communities.

A little red antechinus
The Pilbara has large lithium deposits and is also home to the little red antechinus.
Needpix

We need proactive planning

Strong planning and conservation action is needed to avoid, manage and prevent the harm mining causes to the environment. However global conservation efforts are often naive to the threats posed by significant growth in renewable energies.

Some protected areas around the world prevent mining, but more than 14% contain metal mines in or near their boundaries. Consequences for biodiversity may extend many kilometres from mining sites.

Meanwhile, other areas increasingly important for conservation are focused on the needs of biodiversity, and don’t consider the distribution of mineral resources and pressures to extract them. Conservation plans for these sites must involve strategies to manage the mining threat.

There is some good news. Our analyses suggest many required materials occur outside protected areas and other conservation priorities. The challenge now is to identify which species are most at risk from current and future mining development, and develop strong policies to avoid their loss.

The map in this article has been updated, because due to a technical issue the previous version omitted some information.The Conversation

Laura Sonter, Lecturer in Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland, and Richard K Valenta, Director – WH Bryan Mining and Geology Research Centre – The Sustainable Minerals Institute, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New research shows lyrebirds move more litter and soil than any other digging animal



Male Superb Lyrebird in display.
Alex Maisey, Author provided

Alex Maisey, La Trobe University and Andrew Bennett, La Trobe University

When you think of lyrebirds, what comes to mind may be the sound of camera clicks, chainsaws and the songs of other birds. While the mimicry of lyrebirds is remarkable, it is not the only striking feature of this species.

In research just published, we document the extraordinary changes that lyrebirds make to the ground layer in forests in their role as an ecosystem engineer.

Ecosystem engineers change the environment in ways that impact on other species. Without lyrebirds, eastern Australia’s forests would be vastly different places.

Male lyrebird in full tail display.
Alex Maisey

What is an ecosystem engineer?

Ecosystem engineers exist in many environments. By disturbing the soil, they create new habitats or alter existing habitats, in ways that affect other organisms, such as plants and fungi.

A well-known example is the beaver, in North America, which uses logs and mud to dam a stream and create a deep pond. In doing so, it changes the aquatic habitat for many species, including frogs, herons, fish and aquatic plants. Other examples include bandicoots and bettongs.

The Superb Lyrebird acts as an ecosystem engineer by its displacement of leaf litter and soil when foraging for food. Lyrebirds use their powerful claws to rake the forest floor, exposing bare earth and mixing and burying litter, while seeking invertebrate prey such as worms, centipedes and spiders.




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To study the role of the lyrebird as an engineer, we carried out a two-year experiment in Victoria’s Central Highlands, with three experimental treatments.

First, a fenced treatment, where lyrebirds were excluded from fenced square plots measuring 3m wide.

Second, an identical fenced plot but in which we simulated lyrebird foraging with a three-pronged hand rake (about the width of a lyrebird’s foot). This mimicked soil disturbance by lyrebirds but without the birds eating the invertebrates that lived there.

The third treatment was an unfenced, open plot (of the same size) in which wild lyrebirds were free to forage as they pleased.

Over a two-year period, we tracked changes in the litter and soil, and measured the amount of soil displaced inside and outside of these plots.

A colour-banded female lyrebird in Sherbrooke Forest, Victoria. Her powerful claws are used for foraging in litter and soil.
Meghan Lindsay

Lyrebirds dig up a lot of dirt

On average, foraging by wild lyrebirds resulted in a staggering 155 tonnes per hectare of litter and soil displaced each year throughout these forests.

To the best of our knowledge, this is more than any other digging vertebrate, worldwide.

To put this in context, most digging vertebrates around the world, such as pocket gophers, moles, bandicoots and bettongs, displace between 10-20 tonnes of material per hectare, per year.

To picture what 155 tonnes of soil looks like, imagine the load carried by five medium-sized 30 tonne dump trucks – and this is just for one hectare!

But how much does an individual lyrebird displace? At one study location we estimated the density of the lyrebird population to be approximately one lyrebird for every 2.3 hectares of forest, thanks to the work of citizen scientists led by the Sherbrooke Lyrebird Study Group.

Based on this estimate, and to use our dump truck analogy, a single lyrebird will displace approximately 11 dump trucks of litter and soil in a single year.

Lyrebirds dig up a lot of dirt in forests.

Changes to the ground layer

After two years of lyrebird exclusion, leaf litter in the fenced plots was approximately three times deeper than in the unfenced plots. Soil compaction was also greater in the fenced plots.

Where lyrebirds foraged, the soil easily crumbled and the litter layer never fully recovered to a lyrebird-free state before foraging re-occurred.

This dynamic process of disturbance by lyrebirds has been going on for millennia, profoundly shaping these forests. For organisms such as centipedes, spiders and worms living in the litter and soil, the forest floor under the influence of lyrebirds may provide new opportunities that would not exist in their absence.

Terraced soil where litter has been removed and roots exposed by foraging lyrebirds.
Alex Maisey

An ecosystem ravaged by fire

The Australian megafires of 2019/20 resulted in approximately 40% of the Superb Lyrebird’s entire distribution being incinerated, according to a preliminary analysis by BirdLife Australia.

So great was the extent of these fires that the conservation status of the lyrebird has been thrown into question. That the conservation status has fallen – from “common” to potentially being “threatened” – from a single event is deeply concerning.




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Loss of lyrebird populations on this scale will have potentially far-reaching effects on forest ecology.

In the face of climate change and a heightened risk of severe wildfire, understanding the role that species such as the Superb Lyrebird play in ecosystems is more important than ever.

Without lyrebirds, eastern Australia’s forests would be vastly different places, with impacts extending well beyond the absence of their glorious song to other animals who rely on these “ecosystem engineers”.The Conversation

Alex Maisey, PhD Candidate, La Trobe University and Andrew Bennett, Professor of Ecology, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.