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Thoughts

Thinking Beyond Carbon: A Just-Transition to Renewable Technologies

5th Nov, 2021

Waco Yokoyama gives us her thoughts straight from the COP26 summit.

A couple of weeks ago, I was completing my master’s in Environmental Change and Management. Whilst waiting for my dissertation result, I joined the Low Carbon team at Gemserv as a Policy Insight Analyst. It has been a particularly busy period in the lead up to COP26, and a fascinating time to join such an exciting company who are helping clients to drive real change in the areas of sustainability and the environment. 

Not only am I excited to be working with our clients to help them influence the policies which will inevitably evolve from the debates over the next two weeks, but I am very much looking forward to attending COP26 myself. I will be participating as a panellist in a discussion session hosted by BMW Group and One Young World on the 10th of November. This event will be accessible to all. I will be sure to post and share my experience and insights on social so do follow our coverage. 

On the panel I will be talking about my research which explored the paradox of sustainable solutions, particularly renewable energy, and the socio-environmental trade-offs made in the process of deployment. I wanted to summarise some of the key findings in the hope that will contribute to the debates around climate action and sustainable supply chains.  

We know that we must move away from fossil fuels to low carbon technologies if we are to hit our net zero targets. However, we need to be aware of the challenges that this could pose. Although the current attention is quite rightly on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, attention also needs to be paid to the materials used to support the move to a net zero future and the wider environmental impacts of these. 

As the dependence on renewable energy continues to grow, lithium demand, due to its significance in battery and storage infrastructure, is forecast to increase by 488% from 2020 to 2050Lithium production results in high water consumption, toxic chemical leaks and the violation of biodiversity and human rights. Without due consideration, we risk creating the new ‘Carbon’. And with this, a new set of challenges which will need to be tackled to mitigate our impact on the planet. 

One of the solutions to this issue has been the domestication of the mineral supply chain. Vulcan Energy Resources (Vulcan) in Germany, and Cornish Lithium in England are two examples of mineral extraction operators who are working to localise their supply chains by basing their resource extraction in the local area with innovative extraction processes. However, is localisation truly more sustainable and is this a just-transition?  

My study found that that localisation of lithium extraction through direct lithium extraction (DLE) has several socio-environmental benefits in the local area. For example, DLE shows lower carbon, water and land footprint, and the smaller silo-ed supply chains enable more consistency in regulations which make sustainability monitoring and assessment easier.  

While this brings net zero benefits to the local area, it does not align directly with the wider global sustainability agenda such as the World Bank’s Climate Smart Mining Framework. By deciding to prioritise local net zero rather than helping to develop the current supply chain and improve operating mines, this approach may not deliver wholesale benefits across the whole sector. By examining BMW’s project, Cobalt for Development, I realised that for localisation or a change in supply chain to be globally sustainable, it can be supplemented with instruments to allow collaboration and support with previously operated supply chains and developing countries. Although this is mostly a project developed within downstream sectors, it is also important for upstream sectors to collaborate and take responsibility of their sector’s opportunity costs.  

In summary, localisation poses several socio-environmental benefits for the local region. However, climate change is not bounded by regions. It is important to understand that silo-ed supply chains can cause opportunity costs and that it is not beyond our capacity to ensure that these costs are mitigated. Localisation can be supplemented with partnerships and projects to ensure that previous supply chains, developing countries and the communities are also supported.   

At COP26, I hope that pollution is not only understood as the emission of toxins but also as the removal of ecosystems, nature, biodiversity, and human rights. This would encourage parties to recognise the need to think beyond carbon and tackle the trade-offs being made to other planetary boundaries to ensure a just-transition to sustainable technologies.  

The COP26 event: Green transport: The road to climate recovery  

Contact the author: Waco Yokoyama

Waco.Yokoyama@gemserv.com

 

Authors

Waco Yokoyama

Policy Insight Analyst

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