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Your guide to talking about climate tech over the holidays

The volume of mining is even higher if you take into account that some minerals are present in pretty low concentrations. Take copper, for example—a common material used for everything from transmission lines to EV batteries. Getting one ton of copper can require moving over 500 tons of rock, since sites mined today tend to have concentrations of copper below 1%. 

However, even if you take into account all that waste rock, the energy transition is likely going to involve less mining than the fossil-fuel economy does today. The details will depend on how much recycling we can do, as well as how technologies evolve. If you want more details, I’d highly recommend this stellar analysis from Hannah Ritchie for a comparison.

Any mining can be harmful for the environment and for people living near mines. So it’s still worth paying careful attention to how these projects are progressing, and how we can lighten the burden of new technologies. But climate technology isn’t going to create a brand-new level of mining. 

Touchy Climate Topic # 3: I heard they’re stacking wind turbine blades, solar panels, and EV batteries in landfills. Isn’t the waste from all this “clean” tech going to be a big problem? 

Manufacturers are racing to get more clean energy technologies built and running, which means that in a few decades many will be reaching the end of their useful lives, and we’ll need to figure out what to do with them.

Take solar panels, for example. In 2050, we could see as much as 160 million metric tons of cumulative waste from solar panels. Sounds like a lot—and it is—but there’s a bigger problem. By then we’ll have generated a total of about 1.8 billion metric tons of e-waste, and plastic waste will top 12 billion metric tons. (For other comparisons, check out this Inside Climate News story, and the original article those numbers come from in Nature Physics.)

Overall, waste from climate tech is likely to be a facet of a much more substantial problem. Even so, there are still plenty of good reasons not to just throw old technology into the landfill. Many of the materials needed to make these items are expensive and could be reused to alleviate the need for more mining. 

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