It’s Better to Mine the World’s Rainforests Than Farm Them


As if the world’s rainforests don’t have enough problems to contend with, even the transition to zero carbon energy threatens to put them on the line.

Industrial mining consumed 3,265 square kilometers (1,260 miles) of rainforest between 2002 and 2019, according to a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. About 80% of that total occurs in just four countries: Indonesia, Brazil, Ghana and Suriname.

With the COP27 climate conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh next week expected to increase attention to the climate needs of developing countries, it has raised concerns that there is not enough land to manage the shift away from fossil fuels. Most of the world’s nickel, an important metal for making electric car batteries, lies beneath the rainforests of Southeast Asia. About 6,732 sq km of Indonesian forest has been given over to nickel mining permits, a coalition of environmental groups wrote in a July letter to Tesla Inc.

“An honest and comprehensive review of the entire life cycle of clean energy” cars will show the “negative social and environmental impact” on the world, Michael Heberling, an academic at Michigan’s Baker College, said this year.

Of course, mining involves the destruction of the surrounding land. Even where minerals are mined underground rather than surface mines, the tailings, processing plants and surrounding transport infrastructure consume many hectares of countryside.

Still, the challenges of preserving the world’s nature are so great that we risk looking at only a small part of the elephant, rather than looking at the whole beast. Almost all economic activities bear some form of environmental cost. The question is not about finding unpaid jobs, but identifying those that maximize the associated social and economic benefits.

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At the outset, it is important to consider that the amount of commodities we use each year varies greatly: about 8.2 billion tons of coal and 4.2 billion tons of oil; 1.2 billion tons of maize and 780 million tons of wheat; 25 million tons of copper and 2.7 million tons of nickel; 3,000 tons of gold and 180 tons of platinum.

That doesn’t tell the whole story, though. Nickel ore contains about a thousand times more metal per ton than gold ore, so the much smaller production of the gold industry results in the same volume of waste rock. Then there is the question of surface disturbance: commodities extracted from open-pit mines such as ore have a much larger surface area than those such as platinum that are mined largely underground. Oil and gas from the ocean floor does not occupy a single hectare of land, except for that used for transportation and land preparation.

Judging by the size of the land – the number of hectares needed to supply the needs of the community – it is clear that minerals are still the most used area. All of the world’s mines cover just 101,583 square kilometers, according to this year’s study based on satellite observations – an area smaller than we use to grow oats, and equal to less than 0.2% of the world’s agricultural land.

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Another consideration is how often the product is reused. 50kg of nickel in an electric car battery will be recycled over tens of thousands of kilometers the vehicle is driven, and then it can be reused for other purposes when the vehicle is scrapped. The 50 gallons of gasoline in your fuel tank, on the other hand, will need to be refilled several thousand times before the car is taken to the landfill. Farmland, in all the large areas that use it, can produce the same volume year after year, even increasing over time with improved agricultural yields.

Energy is an important and related consideration. If your electric car is charged with energy produced by burning coal, it is possible that it has a lot more land than electricity from nuclear, wind or gas – both because coal is corrupt in terms of its land requirements, and because the resources must be constantly renewed by mining more coal. Solar energy, for all its benefits in terms of carbon emissions, also chews up a lot of land.

Finally, land use costs and benefits are considered. All the world is not created equal. About 60% of the world’s carbon biomass is stored in forests, another 22% in grasslands and savannahs. Keeping this carbon locked up in living tissue instead of releasing it into the atmosphere is a burden that falls heavily on low-income tropical countries, which have the largest forest reserves and some of the largest land use requirements. in economic growth.

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This is where the rest of the world has a role to play. Economic development requires not only land, but also labor, capital, and improved productivity. Most developing countries do not have a labor shortage, but the capital needed to develop the land effectively and move their economies up the production value chain is very scarce. Promises made by rich countries over the past decade to provide $100 billion in annual investment worldwide to decarbonize and adapt to the effects of climate change have not been fulfilled.

If rich countries want cleared rainforest lands to be put to good use – and, where possible, restored to their natural state – then they will need more labour, not less capital labour. Mining has no environmental impact. But it is much better than many other methods.

More from the Bloomberg opinion:

• Even Lula’s victory may not bring back Brazil’s jungles: David Fickling

• To save the Planet, Poor Nations must be paid: Mihir Sharma

• Giant Sequoias Are Built To Resist Fires, But Not These Fires: Faye Flam

This column does not reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and manufacturing. Previously, he worked for Bloomberg News, The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

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