A new study appearing in the journal Nature Communications says that increasing demand for minerals used in renewable energy production is a looming threat to biodiversity conservation, and without careful planning, may surpass those averted by climate change mitigation in the short term.

The study, led by the University of Queensland and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), mapped mining regions and their proximity to protected areas. They found that mining influences more than 19 million square miles (50 million square kilometers) or 35 percent of the earth’s land surface excluding Antarctica. Of that, eight percent of mining areas border or overlap with protected areas, seven percent with Key Biodiversity Areas, and 16 percent with wilderness.

The authors say that as demand for renewable energy, such as wind and solar, continues to grow, so do the required technologies and infrastructure. This in turn is driving an increase in metals such as such as lithium, cobalt, copper, nickel and aluminum.

The International Energy Agency estimates that switching to low-carbon sources of energy, like wind and solar, could halve global emissions. As an organization, WCS recognizes the critical need for net zero carbon by 2050, including a long-term shift from fossil fuels to renewables.

Careful strategic planning is urgently required to ensure that mining threats to biodiversity caused by renewable energy production do not surpass the threats averted by climate change mitigation and any effort to slow fossil fuel extraction and use. Currently, habitat loss and degradation threaten 80 percent of endangered species, while climate change directly affects 20 percent.

Said the study’s lead author, Dr Laura Sonter of the University of Queensland: “The problem is that renewable energy production is material-intensive — much more so than fossil fuels — and since renewables currently account for about 17 per cent of global energy consumption, significant production increases in these metals are needed to phase out fossil fuel use.”

“Halting anthropogenic climate change is necessary to conserve biodiversity, and energy sector innovation is where most effort is needed,” Dr. Sonter added.

The authors note that many biodiversity conservation priorities will be under increasing pressure from mining, and there could be difficult trade-offs.

Co-author James Watson of the University of Queensland and WCS said there is an urgent need to understand and account for the size of mining risks to biodiversity.

Said Watson: “The impacts of a pathway to a green energy future on biodiversity are not considered in international climate policies, nor are new mining threats seriously addressed in current global discussions about the Convention on Biological Diversity’s post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.”

The authors say that at the local scale, minimizing these impacts will require effective environmental impact assessments, policies, management, and enforcement. Importantly, new mining projects should adhere strictly to the principles of the Mitigation Hierarchy, where biodiversity impacts must first be avoided where possible before allowing compensation activities elsewhere. While compensation may help to overcome some of the expected biodiversity impacts of mining in some places, rarely does this approach achieve No Net Loss outcomes universally.

A systematic understanding of the spatially explicit consequences of various mining activities on specific biodiversity features, including those that occur in marine systems and at varying distances from mine sites, is required.

The research team also included Professor Rick Valenta from UQ’s Sustainable Minerals Institute and Dr. Marie Dade from McGill University.