Environmental activists need to set their priorities straight and get serious about green technologies, otherwise they risk pushing Europe – and the rest of the world – into a fossil fuel trap.
The environmental movement’s approach to green tech can sometimes be puzzling, to say the least.
When the European Commission unveiled a strategy, more than two years ago, to boost offshore wind generation capacity 25 times over by mid-century, the Greens did not break out in applause. Instead, they expressed worries about the protection of marine wildlife.
Similarly, when the EU executive tabled a plan last year to ditch Russian fossil fuels and massively accelerate the deployment of wind and solar in Europe, activists did not rejoice but cried wolf at the idea that renewables could be labelled as projects of “overriding public interest”.
WWF, the global conservation group, even fired a warning shot at EU policymakers, saying the concept of an “overriding public interest” for renewables might “lead to more projects being challenged in court on environmental grounds, thereby slowing them down.”
Now, Greta Thunberg and dozens of other activists were seen on Monday blocking the entrance of Norway’s Energy Ministry in protest against wind turbines built on land traditionally used by indigenous Sami reindeer herders.
Activists, of course, may have valid points to make. Razing pristine forests to build massive solar or wind farms would be disastrous. And there is a genuine issue in ensuring that local communities truly benefit from green energy projects.
But there is also an energy crisis going on. One where Europe is desperately racing to replace fossil fuels in record time – including an objective to at least double the share of renewables and slash carbon emissions in half before the end of this decade.
Thunberg has repeatedly told policymakers to take the climate emergency for what it is – an emergency. And the hard truth is that no renewable energy solution is 100% green. Nor is “clean tech” 100% clean.
Hard choices need to be made, some of them involving trade-offs. And nowhere are those trade-offs more visible than with green technologies like solar panels, wind turbines, heat pumps, or electric vehicles, which all require raw materials like copper, cobalt, lithium, or rare earths.
In 2021, the International Energy Agency warned about an upcoming supply crunch in the materials most needed to transition away from fossil fuels. There is “a looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realising those ambitions”, it said back then.
A recent study by Belgium’s KUL Leuven university calls for greater focus on developing mining and mineral refining capacity within the EU in order to decrease Europe’s reliance on China, which often supplies more than 90% of the raw materials needed for clean-tech manufacturing.
“First and foremost, this is about building capacities in Europe,” said Peter Handley, a senior official at the European Commission’s internal market directorate. “We have to look at where it makes sense to extract raw materials here in Europe,” he told a EURACTIV event in December.
Europe needs to make it more attractive to invest in mining, said Liesbet Gregoir, the lead author of the KUL study. “Permitting procedures take a long time. So we need to find a way to get public support by getting transparency and trust that mining is needed,” she told EURACTIV.
Fortunately, some activists agree. Julia Poliscanova from the clean mobility group Transport and Environment (T&E) says the EU must support “strategic projects” for minerals mining and refining, which promote high social and environmental standards.
“We must give support not just to domestic projects but also to global projects in mining, as well as in refining and recycling,” she told the EURACTIV event.
And as Europe supports mining projects abroad, it can also bring higher social and environmental standards in host countries, making sure local communities can also benefit.
But despite the clear need to scale up mining for the green transition, there is a growing trend of anti-mining activism seeking to denounce the social and environmental impacts that could be unleashed by the energy transition.
While mining projects deserve scrutiny, Europe should also avoid the trap of green fundamentalism. Because the alternative would be to prolong the world’s addiction to fossil fuels. Or to continue relying on China for our raw materials, which surely won’t help the cause of human rights or the environment.
Campaigners need to choose their battles more carefully or risk being assimilated to the ranks of new Don Quixotes of this century – fighting against windmills when the real enemy is elsewhere.