What about the impacts of new technology waste?

The impact of making new technologies for electrification (e.g. batteries, electric cars, and solar cells) is far less than the impact of the existing fossil fuel technologies they will be replacing. Creating our energy (in practically any way) has an impact which should be measured and managed, but the more detail we delve into for the full lifetime impacts of technology, the more reason we have to electrify everything faster. As an example, an EU Transport & Environment study from March 2021 showed that over the lifetime of an electric vehicle, the weight of petrol or diesel burned is around 300-400 times that of the weight of raw metals lost in an electric vehicle's lifetime.

Long answer

It is worth considering what we might do wrong in trying to address climate change. Remember that ‘it was a good idea at the time’ applies to coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear. Some people sweat about whether we have enough of all of the materials to make this clean energy transition. Some worry about the waste. With certainty there will be unforeseen consequences, but for a moment we should focus on what we know. Today, the average Australian uses around 6 tonnes of fossil fuels per year, 23 tonnes if we include our exports. Even just those 6 tonnes are a lot and translate to around 17 tonnes of CO2 emissions per person per year. But what if we did it differently? The same lifestyle, fully electrified, could be had for 4 kilowatts (kW) of constant power, which is 96 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per day, per person. If we were to commit to producing half of that with solar and half with wind, and – because it’s not always windy or sunny – store half of it in batteries, we would need far less stuff. How much less? Assuming the wind turbines will last 30 years, the solar modules 20 and the batteries ten, all reasonable numbers for technology we have today, we’d need around 50 kilograms per year per person of wind turbines, solar modules and batteries – around 150 kilograms in total. Wind turbines are made from a lot of steel and copper and some glass and plastic. Solar modules are mostly glass and aluminium with a little silicon. Batteries are made of lithium and other elements that are quite recyclable. We should be able to recover as much as 80% or more of these materials. If we aggressively recycle these sustainable options, we would need just 15–25 kilograms of basic stuff per person per year, a hugely smaller burden on the planet than the 6000–7000 kilograms we produce in the carbon economy today, measured in raw carbon or combusted CO2, practically none of which is recycled. There is reason for hope here. Fifteen to 25 kilograms is about 300 times less material than 6000 kilograms. A thousand times less than our individual CO2 contributions. This analysis is plainly back of the envelope, but in it you should find hope, optimism. We can be far better stewards of the planet.

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