Mining ‘green metals’ may increase pressure on key biodiversity areas – study

Quarry mine view
Stock image.

A study led by researchers at the University of Queensland found that protected areas, key biodiversity areas and the world’s remaining wilderness would be under growing pressure from mining the minerals and metals required for a clean energy transition.

According to Laura Sonter, lead author of the paper published in Nature Communications, renewable energy production is material-intensive – much more so than fossil fuels – and mining these materials would increase as fossil fuels were phased out, creating further pressure on the biodiversity located in mineral-rich landscapes.

Of the mining areas that overlap protected areas and wilderness, those that target materials for renewable energy contain a greater density of mines

To reach this conclusion, Sonter and her team mapped the world’s mining areas according to an extensive database of 62,381 pre-operational, operational and closed mining properties, targeting 40 different commodities.

They found that areas with potential mining activity covered 50 million square kilometres of the planet – 35% of the Earth’s terrestrial land surface excluding Antarctica – and many of these areas coincided with places critical for biodiversity conservation.

“Almost 10% of all mining areas occur within currently protected sites, with plenty of other mining occurring within or nearby sites deemed a priority for the future conservation of many species,” Sonter said in a media statement.

Of the total areas analyzed, 82% target materials needed for renewable energy production, of which, 12% coincide with protected areas, 7% with key biodiversity areas and 14% with wilderness.

“And, of the mining areas that overlapped protected areas and wilderness, those that targeted materials for renewable energy contained a greater density of mines than the mining areas that targeted other materials,” Sonter said.

The researchers said this topic needs to be addressed in international fora such as the global discussions about the post-2020 United Nations’ Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. At the same time, careful strategic planning of what the transition towards renewable energies looks like is urgently needed.