Over the coming decades, we need to transform our economies to meet our shared goal of keeping global warming to below 2°C.
We broadly know what this will involve and where we want to get to. There is a consensus that we need to switch our power grids to renewable energy, electrify transport networks and buildings, and upgrade them to be smarter and more efficient in their energy use. We also need to transition to a circular economy, in which waste is drastically reduced, or even eliminated, and we can meet our needs by reusing or recycling existing resources. But therein lies the challenge: we can’t do the second until we have all of the materials that we need to create the first. And there is a massive shortfall, particularly in the metals and minerals that are essential to the functioning of almost all green technologies. All of those metals and minerals will need to be extracted from the ground.
Mining typically happens far outside urban areas, so it’s understandable that it’s mostly out of sight, out of mind for most of the public. If people think about mining at all, they tend to imagine it as a dirty, dangerous, destructive industry that, like fossil fuels, must be scaled back if we are to meet our decarbonization goals. But the modern mineral supply chain is far removed from these images of the past, and the market’s ability to maintain supply in step with demand will have considerable implications for economic policy, and vice versa.
Take a typical electric car. It might look similar to a conventional model with an internal combustion engine, but it requires six times the mineral inputs — more copper and more manganese, but also significant amounts of lithium, nickel, cobalt, and graphite, as well as rare earth metals. These are crucial for battery performance, and for the permanent magnets that drive electric motors.
The growth in electric vehicles is far from the only factor driving global demand. The mineral resources that go into establishing an onshore wind plant are nine times greater than for a gas-fired power plant of equivalent capacity. For offshore wind, the multiplier is even higher. Solar photovoltaics use double the weight of copper per megawatt of generation, and also substantial amounts of silicon. Since 2010, there has been a 50% increase in the average amount of minerals needed for a new unit of energy generation as investment in renewables has grown. We will also need to make and deploy batteries on an unprecedented scale, both to store green energy for when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, and to power the many, many devices that will collect and process data in tomorrow’s smart cities. According to the IEA, meeting the Paris Agreement goal of stabilizing global warming below 2°C would mean a quadrupling of mineral requirements for clean energy technologies by 2040. To reach net-zero globally by 2050, there would need to be six times as many mineral inputs in 2040 as there are today.
Implementation of green technologies for the decarbonization of the economy is an imperative. The success of the green transition will in some ways hinge on the mining industry as the primary producers of critical minerals, particularly over the next decade as we move towards a more circular economy. Ultimately, they are a finite resource — another hard limit on the planet’s ability to sustain us. Integrated, clear-sighted thinking to join the dots between supply and demand will be invaluable as we navigate the challenges ahead.
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