If the world is going to decarbonize, we’re gonna need a bigger supply of minerals, a new report says.
Climate scientists have made it clear that we need to phase out greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, at the absolute latest, to stave off catastrophic levels of global warming. That transition will require us to not only end our use of gas and diesel-powered cars but also to rapidly increase our deployment of carbon-free alternatives. Minerals like nickel, cobalt, lithium, copper, and rare earth elements are all critical components of clean energy technologies including wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage.
The analysis, published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) on Wednesday, says that globally, keeping pace with that 2050 goal could increase demand for critical minerals overall by as much as six-fold by 2040. And for some minerals, the gap between current supply and projected future demand is even larger. Demand for graphite, for instance, is expected to grow by 25 times in under two decades, while demand for lithium is projected to grow by 70 times.
“Today, the data shows a looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realising those ambitions,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, said in a statement.
Increasing demand for batteries to power electric vehicles and store clean power, the report says, will be the biggest factor driving the shortage in mineral supply. An electric vehicle requires six times more minerals than a traditional, fossil fuel-powered car.
Quickening the deployment of renewable energy will also be a huge factor. For instance, each offshore wind plant requires 13 times more mineral resources than a similarly sized natural gas power plant. And growth in low-carbon power generation overall is estimated to triple mineral demand by 2040.
To further complicate things, the production of minerals like lithium, cobalt, and rare earths is highly concentrated. Just three countries account for more than 75% of all those mined today. Currently, 70% of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and 60% of rare earth minerals come from China. The mineral-processing industry is even more concentrated than that, with China refining 90% of rare earth elements.
This tight clustering means these crucial supply chains are already very vulnerable to disruption. With more pressure as demand increases, that could become even more of a problem. If one country sees major issues with its mineral output — for instance, due to extreme weather disasters or changing trade restrictions — that could put the whole world’s clean energy production in peril.
The report lays out potential strategies for governments to enact, which could help take on these issues. One strategy includes diversifying supply chains by mining different parts of the world, which could increase and stabilise production. Another strategy is developing new technologies that don’t require as much of these products to produce.
A third possibility is to scale up recycling of used-up clean energy technologies and batteries. If the world does so, the report says, “by 2040, recycled quantities of copper, lithium, nickel and cobalt from spent batteries could reduce combined primary supply requirements for these minerals by around 10%.”
Of course, increased demand for minerals could create a host of other problems, too. Without careful attention paid to where mines are sited, they can become a serious threat to biodiversity. For instance, mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo can harm the region’s lush jungles full of apes and elephants, while mines slated to be opened in Madagascar could threaten the endangered Mittermeier’s sportive lemur. Some nations also have fledgling plans to mine the deep sea for rare earth minerals, which could be an environmental disaster.
These mines can also be a threat to human lives. In Chile, lithium mining is raising concerns because it’s depleting the local water supply and threatening Indigenous people’s homes. There’s also the question of labour abuses. Tech giants including Apple, Google, and Tesla, for instance, have been sued over cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — plaintiffs say their children were killed or maimed while mining.
Though challenges abound, the report says that they don’t put our clean energy targets out of reach. But overcoming them — and protect the planet and people as we do so — will take careful planning.
“The challenges are not insurmountable,” Birol said. “But governments must give clear signals about how they plan to turn their climate pledges into action.”