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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: Why is lithium mining so bad for the environment? -- Jane B., Atlanta, GA

Lithium is called “white gold” for good reason: the metal’s value has been growing exponentially over the last several years, in large part because it is an essential component of lithium-ion batteries, themselves indispensable in several key sustainable technologies where energy storage is of utmost importance. As electric cars, wind and solar power have grown into major players in the energy industry, lithium has become key to engineering a future free of fossil fuels.

But acquiring lithium comes at an enormous cost. As with most metals, its mining is destructive. It often works like this: Briny water, containing lithium as well as salts and other metals, is pumped to the surface from underground aquifers and mixed with freshwater. The concoction then sits in pools to allow the water to evaporate, leaving the rest of its contents behind as brightly-colored toxic sludge. Refineries use heat and chemical reactions to extract the lithium from that, refining it into powder which is then packaged and shipped to buyers around the world. The remaining wastewater is pumped to pools, where it can sit indefinitely. Any accident that releases mine contents into surrounding communities or the groundwater supply could have devastating long-term impacts.

How much environmental degradation can be tolerated locally in the name of conservation globally has led to debates in places as far-flung as Chile, Serbia and Arizona. Indigenous communities often bear the brunt of the damage, and political leaders have typically given little weight to their concerns. In Arizona, for example, an expanding lithium mine is threatening the Hualapai tribe’s cultural and historic sites. While Hualapai leaders have been fighting to protect their land, Supreme Court precedent dating to the 1820s has left them with little legal leverage to wield against the massive power of the mining industry and federal government. And for politicians who have pledged to work with native peoples to confront climate change, mining lithium and other precious metals is bringing priorities into conflict: How do you ensure the availability of materials essential to the future of renewables while protecting tribal rights?

The U.S. currently produces just one percent of the global lithium supply, according to The Wall Street Journal. But as the Biden administration moves to boost production of electric vehicles and challenge China’s market domination, mining of the metal is expected to increase dramatically in coming years. Over time, experts say, that will reduce fossil fuel emissions by making electric cars more affordable, and therefore more popular. Still, environmental leaders disagree as to whether the benefits of those cuts would outweigh the harm done to the people who rely on the mine-scarred land.

Some new research suggests a slightly more positive future scenario. A 2020 University of Córdoba study in Spain found that the batteries could be recycled and reused, and could even work effectively without cobalt, another metal that requires destructive mining practices. For now, though, lithium mining is poised to grow rapidly to meet soaring demand. As environmentally conscious consumers buy electric cars in ever-greater numbers, it’s important to be aware of the dirty process that powers those clean air vehicles.

CONTACTS: Lithium mining in Chile,
nytimes.com/2021/12/28/climate/chile-constitution-climate-change.html; Mining on Hualapai land, hcn.org/issues/53.7/indigenous-affairs-mining-for-lithium-at-a-cost-to-indigenous-religions; The future of American lithium, wsj.com/articles/americas-battery-powered-car-hopes-ride-on-lithium-one-producer-paves-the-way-11615311932; University of Córdoba study, eurekalert.org/news-releases/856097.

Dear EarthTalk: You hear a lot about electric cars and trucks these days, but has there been any carbon-saving innovation lately in trains and even planes? -- Michael C., Summit, NJ

Many environmentalists consider travel an environmental “sin” given the carbon emissions generated by the cars, buses, trains and planes we use to get from Point A to B, but it’s up to each of us to determine how much travel is enough. In the meantime, airplane and train manufacturers and the industries that serve them are doing a lot to green their operations and products.

As for airplanes, manufacturers are working hard to replace toxic materials with greener ones. One example is chrome, a carcinogen heavy metal that is used extensively within passenger cabins and elsewhere in many airplanes. Manufacturers have developed 3D printing using carbon fiber compounds to replace chrome and many other metals used throughout a plane’s body. This also cuts down significantly on weight, which in turn saves fuel and emissions.

Fuel substitution is another sustainability fix that airlines are starting to take seriously. One particularly green substitute fuel comes from Fulcrum BioEnergy, which converts garbage into jet fuel that can augment regular carbon-intensive jet fuel and thus save on emissions. The company’s technology utilizes chemical breakdowns of waste to produce fuels that mix with normal jet fuel, cutting emissions by as much as 20 percent.

Not surprisingly, electric drive planes are also on the horizon. Israel’s Eviation has a zero-emission prototype plane that can fly up to an hour after charging for 30 minutes.

Rail companies are pursuing similar strategies, such as electric powered trains. Gravity powered trains use gravitational force—generated by braking (like hybrid electric cars)—to power their batteries. Train builders are also starting to embrace electric drive systems to save on fossil fuel consumption. These newer hybrid systems can cut emissions and fuel usage by up to 11 percent, which amounts to an average fuel savings of some 6,000 gallons of diesel per trip.

Of course, it is important to understand that travel is often a luxury. And while it can be an essential—such as seeing far-flung relatives or participating in work trips—it can often be minimized. To minimize your carbon footprint and—more important—minimize damage to our imperiled planet, consider reducing your plane travel. While both forms of transit are problematic, trains are a better choice for the planet.

The growth of the transit industry and a globalized economy mean that travel is inevitable as a habit, necessity and pastime. Nevertheless, it’s important not to take plane and train travel for granted. The less you travel, the lower your carbon footprint will remain, so it’s up to you to find the right balance between maintaining your quality of life and helping fight global warming. Maybe in the future we can travel great distances without any environmental guilt. But until then, it’s better to think twice about taking any trips that aren’t absolutely necessary.

CONTACTS: Five Rail Sustainability Trends for 2021, freightwaves.com/news/5-rail-sustainability-trends-for-2021; Airlines want to make flight more sustainable. How will they do it? cen.acs.org/environment/sustainability/Airlines-want-make-flight-sustainable/99/i32#the-search-for-greener-airplane-materials.

Dear EarthTalk: Since when did cargo ships start using wind power (again)? Does this save us from a lot of carbon emissions? -- Bill H. Elizabeth, NJ

To many, sailboats invoke either the 18th century “Age of Sail” or preppy regattas. But some environmentalists and engineers are looking past these connotations and rewiring the art of sailing to suit modern technology.

In fact, the 21st century Age of Sail is already in its infancy, due to concerns about fossil fuel shortages that are used in exorbitant amounts to power enormous cargo ships.

This rewiring of sailing matters because of the immense emissions that cargo ships produce. Because they consume fossil fuels, much of our supply chain is riddled with emissions problems. In fact, marine emissions contribute to ocean acidification and greenhouse gas buildups in the atmosphere, and even an alarming feedback loop between the two. This may influence, among other things, coral reef die-offs. Cargo ships that use sails could partially or even completely eliminate the environmental impacts of diesel usage.

Very practical examples abound. Wine companies like Grain de Sail are not just paying lip service to sustainability or otherwise “greenwashing” their products. They are making sure their products truly reject fossil fuel usage by using canvas sails on a boat similar to 19th century schooners. Its ship uses 100 percent wind energy to propel itself across the ocean.

OceanBird, manufactured by Wallenius, is another innovation. OceanBird is a cargo ship that can reach speeds similar to normal cargo ships using high tech modifications of sails that are closer to helicopters or airplane wings than canvas sails. They use changing air currents and automated shifts in the positioning of the “wings” to maximize speed of transport. While this may sound like science fiction, OceanBird’s experimental prototype will soon be on the market.

Grassroots efforts to support wind-powered cargo ships are still in their infancy, but you can “vote with your wallet” to support companies like Grain de Sail that use cargo sailboats to propel their goods across the water, if you can afford luxuries like their wines.

If not, you can do your part to avoid the shipping industry by shopping at your local thrift store or farmer’s market for local or secondhand goods.

Wind-propelled technologies are not only more picturesque than diesel-based cargo ships belching out emissions, dirtying the air and creating noise pollution. They have an opportunity to revolutionize the shipping industry and break our addiction to fossil fuels. To paraphrase Jimmy Dean, “[We] can’t change the direction of the wind, but [we] can adjust [our] sails to always reach [our] destination.” And when the end destination is a world free from fossil fuels, the journey is worth it.
CONTACTS: Grain de Sail,
graindesailwines.com; The Oceanbird Concept, walleniusmarine.com/our-services/ship-design-newbuilding/ship-design/wind-powered-vessels.

Dear EarthTalk: What are the most recent projections about sea level rise around the world as a result of climate change? And is there any hope of turning back the tide if we rein in emissions as planned under the current iteration of the Paris agreement? -- M. Frey, Milford, CT

As temperatures rise around the world, frozen glaciers and sea ice in the poles are melting at unprecedented rates, inundating the world’s oceans with more water. The result has been some sea level rise but watch out as more is still to come. In fact, the global mean sea level, defined as the average height of the entire ocean surface, has risen eight to nine inches since 1880. Most of that rise took place in the 150 years. At current rates of emissions, the global mean sea level could rise another 12 inches by 2050.

This amount of sea level rise could be catastrophic in low-lying coastal areas around the world. Bangladesh, and island nations like the Maldives and Kiribati are already facing the brunt of rising sea levels as flooding engulfs villages with little government funding to recover from repeated catastrophes.

Here in the U.S., Florida will likely be hardest hit by sea level rise, but the Gulf Coast and New York/New Jersey— where coastline industrial waste sites could be submerged and expose millions of people to decades worth of stored pollution—also face potentially catastrophic flooding. The Gowanus Canal Superfund site in Brooklyn, New York has already released some of its polluted contents in the latest series of storms. Hawaii and far-flung U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam are also at risk.

All U.S. coastal areas will undoubtedly experience some loss of coastal land. Just how much property loss takes place is partly a function of how well prepared any given region is for what’s inevitably coming.

World leaders have only recently resolved to face down sea level rise and climate-change-related threats through concerted action. In particular, the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, nixed by Donald Trump and then revived by Joe Biden, held international governments accountable to lower emissions, collectively limiting global warming processes to 1.5 Celsius. However, the “locked in” sea level rises, which will occur regardless of whether or not temperatures rise above 1.5 Celsius, are estimated to be a quarter to a half meter of sea level rise. Yet, action is still necessary to avoid greater sea level rise.

We can all do our part by cutting back on our own emissions, especially by flying and driving less. Indeed, our dependence on fossil fuels has gained new poignancy recently with defiant Russia using its clout to threaten the rest of Europe with cutting off gas pipelines. Another to help is to take an active role in countering misinformation and pushing for scientifically driven solutions. Consider signing up for text banking at Greenpeace or spreading the word by distributing the documentary Paris to Pittsburgh, which highlights the importance of the accord, to educate your friends and neighbors.

The Paris Agreement and its promises are more vital than ever. While individual citizen actions may appear small in the face of such insurmountable odds, don’t forget that it’s committed and engaged fighters against climate change who motivate world leaders to act in the first place.

CONTACTS: Paris Agreement, unfccc.int/sites/default/files/english_paris_agreement.pdf; Greenpeace Text Banking, greenpeace.org/usa/join-the-greenpeace-volunteer-textbankers-team/; Paris to Pittsburgh, paristopittsburgh.com.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com . To donate, visit https://earthtalk.org . Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org .

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