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‘Clean’ and ‘Renewable’ Don’t Always Mean ‘Sustainable’

hpgruesen / Pixabay
hpgruesen / Pixabay

The world needs to rapidly build out renewable energy generation from wind and sun in order to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions human society produces, but that effort itself isn’t sustainable, according to new research from Sweden.

“Renewable energy technology can lead to reduced emission of greenhouse gases, but for a complete analysis we need to make sure the whole production chain is sustainable,” argues Simon Davidsson of Uppsala University. “For instance, it is not obvious that the production of wind turbines and solar cells is sustainable, that the materials have been sourced in a sustainable way, or that the industries are capable of recycling the technology in the future.”

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“Solar and wind energy are growing rapidly,” the university adds in a release, “but while the energy is renewable every solar panel and wind turbine is largely made from non-renewable resources. Depending on the technologies, the demand for materials and elements which may come from more or less rare resources, will increase. The extraction of these resources creates environmental problems, usually in other parts of the world, and their future availability is often uncertain.”

Moreover, the university adds, “these energy technologies also have a limited lifespan, and the power plants we build today will need replacing in the future.”

“To assess the feasibility and consequences of a global energy transition, we need to consider material flows and how sustainable emerging industries are with regard to aspects other than climate,” Davidsson argues. “Truly sustainable energy systems require the creation of sustainable industries, which not only can produce large amounts of renewable energy technology, but also maintain a working system on a longer time scale.”