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Mining for rare and valuable minerals is done by multinational corporations, government-run operations and individuals, such as the miners above in Namibia.
Mining for rare and valuable minerals is done by multinational corporations, government-run operations and individuals, such as the people working at the mines above in Namibia.

Clean energy future?

Photo by iStock | Illustration courtesy of University of Sussex

Not without key minerals and metals, researchers say

Technologies exist to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change, from electric vehicles to solar power and wind turbines. But to make the changes required to effectively address global warming, adoption of these low-carbon technologies will have to increase exponentially — as will the supply of minerals and metals to bring them to scale.

Saleem Ali, Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware, and colleagues from around the world argue that new international agreements and vigilance mechanisms are urgently needed to improve governance of mining the unique and often irreplaceable minerals that low-carbon technologies require. Their paper, published in Science on Friday, Jan. 3, makes a number of recommendations to help manage the demand for such minerals, limit the environmental damage of their extraction and processing, and ensure the benefits are shared more universally.

"Our analysis is aimed at galvanizing international policy makers to include mineral supply concerns for green technologies in climate change negotiations,” said Ali, a professor in UD’s Department of Geography and Spatial Sciences. “We need to build on the resolution on mineral governance passed at the United Nations Environment Assembly in 2019 and operationalize a clear action plan on supply chain security for a low carbon transition."

The amount of cobalt, copper, lithium, cadmium, and rare earth elements needed for photovoltaics, batteries, electric vehicle motors, wind turbines, fuel cells and nuclear reactors will grow exponentially in the upcoming years. Even if alternatives are found for one metal, there will be reliance on others as the scope of possibilities is inherently limited by physical and chemical properties of elements needed for such technologies.

But with global supplies often heavily monopolized by one country or in areas suffering social or environmental conflicts, there is a very real risk that a shortage of minerals could hold back the urgent need for a rapid upscaling of low-carbon technologies. Ali noted that short-term price declines are giving misleading signals to markets and investors on ostensible metal availability, which masks long-term supply constraints.

His co-author, Benjamin K. Sovacool, professor of energy policy at the University of Sussex, pointed out that problems with mineral supply would affect the implementation of low-carbon technologies.

“Mining, metals and materials extraction is the hidden foundation of the low-carbon transition. But it is far too dirty, dangerous and damaging to continue on its current trajectory,” Sovacool said. “The impacts of mining rightfully alarm many environmental campaigners as a large price to pay to safeguard a low-carbon future. But as the extraction through terrestrial mining becomes more challenging, the on-land reserves of some terrestrial minerals dwindle or the social resistance in some countries escalates, oceanic or even space-based mineral reserves will become a plausible source.”

The new study states that there are important prospects of cobalt and nickel on the continental shelf within countries’ exclusive economic zones as well as on the outer continental shelf regions.

Within international waters, metallic nodules found in the vast Clarion-Clipperton Zone between Hawaii and Mexico in the Pacific Ocean as well as in cobalt and tellurium crusts, found in seamounts worldwide, provide some of the richest deposits of metals for green technologies.

Ali and the Minerals, Materials and Society program at UD’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment have worked to start the conversation about considering regulation of oceanic mining before it begins, hosting an international symposium on the topic last summer.

In the Science paper, Ali and his colleagues recommend that minerals in more pristine and distinctive ecosystems near hydrothermal vents should remain off-limits for mineral extraction for the foreseeable future.

Their additional recommendations include:

·  Incorporating materials security of essential minerals and metals into formal climate planning including establishing a list of “critical minerals” for energy security.

·  Enhancing and coordinating international agreements on responsible mining and traceability in order to establish mineral supply justice.

·  Greatly expanding the recycling and reuse of rare minerals to extend the lifetimes of products and stretch out reserves.

·  Diversifying mineral supply scale to incorporate both small and large-scale operations while allowing miners to have control over mineral revenue through stronger benefit sharing mechanisms and access to markets.

·  Focusing policies by developmental bodies recognizing the livelihood potential of mining in areas of extreme poverty rather than just regulating the sector for tax revenues.

·  Extended Producer Responsibility for products that use valuable rare minerals to ensure that responsibility for the entire lifespan of a product including at the end of its usefulness shifts from users or waste managers to major producers such as Apple, Samsung and Toshiba.

“As the global energy landscape changes, it is becoming more mineral- and metal-intensive,” said co-author Morgan Bazilian, executive director of the Payne Institute for Earth Resources at the Colorado School of Mines. “Thus, the sustainability and security of material supply chains is essential to supporting the energy transition. How we shape that pathway will have important consequences for everything from the environment, to development, and geopolitics.”

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, to meet the decarbonization and climate mitigation goals of the Paris Agreement:

·  Between 2015 and 2050, the global electric vehicle stock needs to jump from 1.2 million light-duty passenger cars to 965 million passenger cars

·  Battery storage capacity needs to climb from 0.5 gigawatt-hour (GWh) to 12,380 GWh

·  The amount of installed solar photovoltaic capacity must rise from 223 gigawatts to more than 7100 GW

According to previous research in the journal Energy Policy, demand for materials between 2015 and 2060 might increase 87,000% for electric vehicle batteries, 1,000% for wind power, and 3,000% for solar cells and photovoltaics.

Besides Ali, Sovacool and Bazilian, the other authors on the Science paper are Ben Radley, London School of Economics, Benoit Nemery, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, Julia Okatz, SYSTEMIQ in London, and Dustin Mulvaney, San Jose State University.

 

 

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