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A rare-earth mine in Ganxian county in central

A rare-earth mine in Ganxian county in central China's Jiangxi province.  Credit: AP

The broad parameters of the climate change fight are clear.

We need to reduce dramatically our dependence on fossil fuels in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and increase our use of alternative energy sources that do not expel carbon dioxide, methane and the like into the atmosphere.

That has led to other sharp delineations, which end up being a little more complex.

Oil, coal and natural gas are bad; solar and wind are good. So goes the premise now gaining acceptance as climate change wreaks escalating damage, and as people experience its effects ever closer to home.

So a shift is taking place. Governments are increasing commitments to reducing emissions, even if actual actions lag. Corporations are making similar pledges or being forced to by restive shareholders. Automakers are promising fleets of electric vehicles in the near future. Individuals are making their own contributions. It's nowhere near universal, but it's enough to signal a shift.

And the implications are interesting, especially for those who see the climate change fight in those stark good vs. evil terms.

Because the shift we seek for the planet's survival will require multitudes of batteries to power our electric vehicles, and really large batteries to store the power the sun and wind produce for delivery during times of peak usage and when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing.

Production of those batteries, and of the component parts of the envisioned massive arrays of wind turbines and solar panels, will require immense amounts of rare-earth elements, graphite, and metals like lithium, cobalt, copper and manganese.

That's where the clean narrative of what's desirable and what's not begins to break down.

In China, which produces 60% of the world's rare-earth element output, mining them has poisoned water and soil, killed crops and animals, and created clusters of abnormal diseases in nearby poor communities. Rare-earth mining in Malaysia by the Australian company Lynas, another major rare-earth producer, has created low-level radioactive waste.

In the Congo, which produces more than 70% of the world's cobalt, human rights issues like inhumane child labor practices and fatal workplace accidents have been documented in some mining operations for years. Lithium mining around the world contaminates soil and water.

Now comes the prospect of mining the ocean 15,000 feet below sea level where nodules rich in cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese rest on the ocean floor. But the deep-sea environment of unique organisms and little-understood biodiversity is still being explored. We don't know yet its potential as a source of medicines or other materials, and it's unclear what impact mining and the plumes of sediment it creates will have on that ecosystem.

The energy transition we seek inevitably means we need more of these materials, even if we diligently recycle what already exists. The International Energy Agency recently found that hitting net-zero emissions worldwide by 2050 would require six times the current production by 2040. The United States is looking to ramp up its production of critical elements to meet demand and reduce its dependence on other, sometimes rival, nations. That's smart. But it must be done right.

Producing these metals and minerals ethically and cleanly is not impossible, just difficult.

The break with fossil fuels might not be as clean as we'd like, but break with them we must. The consequences of unfettered global warming are far worse. The transition might be messier than we'd like, and the decisions more difficult than we'd prefer.

Sometimes solutions to problems bring problems of their own.

Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.

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