11/19/2012 12:03 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2013

The Hidden Costs of Going Green

Go green. Buy a Prius to save money on gas and reduce your carbon footprint. Support wind farms and solar energy farms cropping up in places like the deserts of Arizona and the waters off Massachusetts, and soon we will make a real dent in our carbon-based fuel consumption. So the thinking goes. The green revolution makes perfect sense, but like most things in life, there is a tradeoff. A shift to green technology will increase our reliance on copper mines, the wastes of which "constitute the largest quantity of metal mining and processing wastes generated in the United States," according to the EPA. Copper can be found in nearly every electrical device in the world and is abundant in green technology. At first, only isolated communities near mines will feel this uptick in the demand for copper, but a clash of global priorities looms on the horizon. It will come down to a basic question of what we value more: food and water or minerals.

Gold gets all the attention, but copper is the metal that literally runs the world, because it is a perfect conductor of electricity and does not decay. Here are some numbers: The average car has 50 pounds of copper. An electric car contains three times that amount. The average house has over 400 pounds of copper, mostly hidden in the walls or tucked away in the basement. Every 747 jet has 120 miles of copper wiring, weighing in at 9,000 pounds. Six and a half million miles of copper have been installed in U.S. plumbing since 1963. There are over 1 billion personal computers in the world today, each with an average of 1.5 pounds of copper. There are 16 grams in every one of our world's 6 billion cellphones. Copper can also be found in all tablets, iPads and any electrical handheld device.

As for renewable energy, one modern-day windmill has some 8,000 pounds of copper. A solar farm uses a significant amount of copper to capture energy, and then enormous amounts to ground the installation and move the energy to market.

Currently the world uses about 16 million tons of copper per year. The largest producer of copper is Chile, and the largest consumer is China. With growing economies in Asia, Africa and South America, and with a global population expected to hit 9 billion by 2050, the world consumption of copper will only rise. Add to that the shift to green technology, and by 2020, world annual consumption is expected to reach 27 million tons. To accommodate this increase, industry experts predict that new, large-scale mines will have to be up and running by 2020, but due to a lack of new or "greenfield" mines on the horizon, this will largely be done by opening many small mines and reopening older mines, often referred to as "brownfields."

The majority of copper mines in the world today are open pit mines, measuring up to 1 mile long, 1 mile wide and 2,000 feet deep. In these boreholes into the Earth, trucks weighing up to 600 tons move the earth from one spot to another, in hopes of extracting a trace amount of copper. It takes approximately 100 tons of earth to produce half a ton of copper. In Morenci, Ariz., the largest copper mine in the U.S., five open pits produce almost 400,000 tons of copper per year. Meanwhile, the mine continuously spits out waste rock, which creates man-made mountains that now cover 10 square miles and ooze a runoff of sulfuric acid that contains heavy metals such as arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, iron, lead, nickel, selenium and uranium.

The majority of gas and oil pollution drifts up to the sky, causing the greenhouse effect. In contrast, pollution created by copper mining has a more direct consequence for people living near mines. Air becomes filled with dust and silica, which residents breathe at their peril. Water tables drop, and aquifers become polluted.

Over the next century, protecting our most basic natural resources, specifically food and water, from our increasing demand for copper will become a heated national discussion. In some places this is already happening. The proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska would tap a deposit of up to 80 billion pounds of copper, making it one of the largest copper mines on Earth. But this proposed mine would be 14 miles from Lake Iliamna, the world's largest natural incubator of sockeye salmon. As many as 40 million sockeye salmon enter Bristol Bay every summer, producing an estimated 12,000 jobs, worth around $600 million a year. The fishery feeds tens of thousands of Alaskan natives and millions of people around the globe. In the next few months the EPA will release a final report regarding their scientific analysis of the proposed mine. If the early EPA draft is any indicator, it will clearly state that even without a mining disaster, Pebble Mine will destroy up to 87 miles of salmon streams and 4,300 acres of salmon wetlands. In layman's terms, the mine would mean the utter destruction of the fishery. No amount of copper is worth that risk.

This is a pivotal moment in our collective decision to take charge of how we manage our resources. Yes, we need green technology to curb the impending danger of greenhouse gases. For that, more copper mines must be built. At current growth projections, it may be impossible to stop large-scale copper mining, especially if we want to go green and reduce our carbon output. Nevertheless, we need to mine as responsibly as possible, taking into consideration the environmental and social consequences to the site. We need to be able say "no" to projects like Pebble Mine, where a global food resource far outweighs the potential of a copper mine.

I am a copper product user. I have a cellphone, a computer and a car. I fly every year and cook with copper pots. I believe the only way forward is to go green. We need to bet the farm on it. Nonetheless, we also need to realize that we will drive the open-pit copper mining industry with a new demand for copper components. Going green is best for the planet, but do not be mistaken: Doing so will mean digging enormous holes in the Earth, all of them bleeding toxic metals into watersheds in the name of clean technology.

Bill Carter is the author of Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, the Metal That Runs the World.