The Doctrine of Decarbonization leads to paradoxical situations where the primary (rain)forests are being cleared because we need rare minerals that lay beneath the trees to manufacture EVs and wind turbines.
Will the ‘green invisible hand’ reach for trees or minerals underneath?
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Note: this video covers the same topic.
We want trees to absorb and store planet-warming carbon dioxide.
But we also want minerals that lay beneath the trees to fuel the renewable energy transition.
What wins? The trees or electric cars?
Both activities, (1) planting/keeping trees and (2) mining minerals needed for EV batteries and wind turbines qualify as ‘decarbonization’ and ‘tackling climate change;’ both are perfectly consistent with the Paris Accord and net zero targets set by 80% of Australia’s trading partners.
But the massive, global renewable energy transition hinges on rare FINITE minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, lithium, copper, platinum, palladium and graphite. To meet the demand for these minerals – and we’ll need HEAPS more of them – more mining is required as the renewable energy transition scales up.
And this mining – often in biodiverse rich ecosystems such as Jarrah Forest and the Congo Basin – is sanctified by the doctrine of decarbonization. It has a social and environmental license because it facilitates renewable transition.
This is a paradox – we are destroying the environment on environmental grounds
This isn’t simply a supply and demand market dynamic …
Rather, with globally harmonized carbon price likely coming, we’re going to have a carbon market where the “green invisible hand” (a concept introduced in the previous article/video) does the allocation of resources, labour and prices, like Adam Smith’s invisible hand, but updated for the 21st climate-changed century.
By putting a high enough price on carbon, we’re creating a universal green lever, a green invisible hand that shapes markets in a way that encourages low-carbon economic activities, as we saw last time with New Zealand and Australian farmers, who plant trees on their farms instead of breeding sheep. These farmers do it because they make more money by planting trees (low-carbon activity) than by breeding sheep (high-carbon activity).
But this market mechanism, this invisible green hand, is still blind, and can actually castrate fragile biodiverse rich ecosystems despite “reaching out” for a green outcome/goal.
Let’s look at two examples.
Jarrah Forest, Western Australia
Eucalyptus marginata, or Jarrah, is a species of Gum tree that dominates the ecoregion known as Jarrah Forest located in south-western WA.
This biodiverse rich region about the size of Tasmania is home to 780 native tree and plant species such as Marri, Jarrah, Zamias, Balgas, Orchids, and Banksias; and many threatened animal species, e.g. western quoll, western ringtail possum, quokka, or Carnaby’s cockatoo.
Beneath the trees lay bauxite, platinum, nickel, and palladium deposits. And these “green” minerals are needed more and more – without them, we can’t make EV batteries, wind turbines, and other RE-infrastructure.
These days, the importance of forests is mainly paralleled by our need to absorb and store planet-warming carbon dioxide, in line with the global decarbonization efforts (to meet the net zero targets and limit global warming).
But let’s not forget that trees also cool down areas by providing shade and by “sweating,” (a process known as transpiration, or evaporative cooling, where trees – natural air-cons – ooze tiny droplets of water through their leaves). “In Australia trees cool the land surface by 2 to 3 degrees,” this report states. With the help of their large and deep roots, trees also prevent underground water table from dropping towards bedrock, thus keeping underground areas moist long-term.
Forests bring rain
Healthy rain/forests – forests with a bushy understory, mid-story and canopy layers – transpire profusely, releasing enough water vapour that condenses in the air creating clouds and, consequently, rain. When there is enough water vapour released from the forest, more vapour released from the ocean is drawn to it and when the vapours merge, there is more rain. This process is called the ‘Biotic Pump’.
So reducing trees to one single denominator of “CO2 vacuums” is limited. When trees are removed from our warming planet, we lose more than carbon sinks.
But Jarrah forest is being cleared – on environmental grounds
Already more than 32,000 hectares (94 times the size of Central Park in NYC) of Jarrah forest had been lost due to Bauxite mining; Bauxite is the key raw material for aluminium production.
More Jarrah forest is slated for clearing to expand open-cut mining. Alcoa and South32, two main mining companies in the area, want to clear 13,672 ha (40 Central Parks).
And more exploration licenses have been granted to mining giants Fortescue and Rio Tinto, with the intention of extracting nickel and cobalt (for electric car batteries), and platinum and palladium (for green hydrogen production) deposited beneath the trees.
Although the WA government banned clearing native forests from 2024, mining is exempt which means that clearing forests for “green metals” deposited underneath can go on.
The Congo Basin
What does it mean for the second largest primary rainforest in the Congo Basin – a biodiverse rich region in the heart of Africa?
It means that these rare minerals – the Congo Basin has the largest reserves of some of them beneath the trees – will be mined at accelerating speed (by Chinese companies).
Now, you may say that this is simply a supply and demand dynamic … that this is a logical reflection of our global need to decarbonize … so of course we need more “green” metals to let go of carbon dependency ...
But again, there is more to it than simple supply and demand. It’s the green invisible hand in operation.
Here’s what I mean:
Let’s say that you’re a mining executive and your geological exploration finds deposits of 100 tonnes of cobalt (the mineral needed for EV batteries) deposited beneath the trees on ten hectares of primary rainforest in Congo.
Those 100 tonnes of cobalt will produce, say, 1,000 electric car batteries. Now, let’s say that the whole asset life of one electric car battery is 20 years and that one electric car driven for 20 years avoids the release of 5,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (a volume released by a typical petrol car over 20 years).
We now have:
1,000 EV cars X 5,000 tonnes of GHGs = 5,000 000 tonnes of planet-warming GHGs that didn’t go into the atmosphere.
But we also cleared the forest, which caused (1) an immediate release of CO2 during clearing, (2) ongoing loss of 10ha of carbon sink, plus – and this is NOT included in the calculation – the impact on local communities, groundwater, biodiversity etc. Over the period of twenty years, this combined loss (immediate and cumulative) amounts to, say, 500 000 tonnes of CO2.
So clearing the forest for EV batteries translates into a net 4 500 000 tonnes (5 million minus 500 thousand) of CO2 avoided over 20 years, much more than keeping the forest.
See this warped logic? If we look at nature through the carbon calculator, we may see biodiverse regions ANIHILLATED … because we could justify environmental destruction on environmental grounds.
You as a mining executive could be incentivized to clear primary rainforest not only financially, but also, environmentally.
If we allow this, we’ll see rapid destruction of the Jarrah Forest in Western Australia, a primary rainforest in the Congo Basin, and elsewhere.
By looking at the economic activity through the “green invisible hand” lens only, we’re still destructive, we’re not including biodiversity, groundwater, rain-generation potential, impact on local communities, etc.
So, what to do?
Mining companies often revegetate an area equivalent in size to the area they clear and/or buy carbon offsets. But that’s often a pretense, rather than a solution, as we’ll explore next time.
I like what Jess Beckerling from WA Forests Alliance said in a recent article: “What remains in our forests is absolutely vital for climate and biodiversity. We can’t mine our way out of the problems we’ve created for ourselves. We have to shift our consumption habits so we don’t mine everything in sight.”
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