Demand for crucial energy transition materials is expected to increase four to six times from current levels by 2050, making it urgent to solve the social and environmental problems of mining, say advocates for a clean and just energy transition.
If the annual demand for energy transition materials (ETMs) increases 400% as predicted by the International Energy Agency’s sustainable development scenario, the world will need 28 million tonnes of the materials by 2040.
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Or if you consider the World Bank’s higher projections [pdf], the production of some minerals could increase nearly 500% by 2050, with more than three billion tonnes of minerals and metals needed to hold average global warming below 2°C.
Both the IEA and the World Bank note there is some uncertainty associated with the demand for certain ETMs, depending on levels of climate ambition and the feasibility of emerging technologies. For instance, the IEA notes that “cobalt and graphite may see six- to 30-times higher demand than today, depending on the direction of battery chemistry evolution.”
Still, the tonnage of ETMs needed for a clean transition by 2050 pales in comparison with the 15 billion tonnes of fossil fuels being mined and extracted annually, writes the Distilled blog. One reason for the high demand for fossil fuels is their inefficient infrastructure compared to clean energy technologies.
“Gas-powered cars are three times less efficient than electric vehicles,” Distilled explains. “Gas furnaces are three to four times less efficient than heat pumps. Coal, oil, and gas all need to be transported long distances from mine or well to the source of combustion.”
That means “a clean energy transition will help us avoid the worst effects of climate change; it will save millions of lives currently lost to air pollution each year; and, importantly, it will reduce the total amount of environmentally and socially harmful mining each year.”
But organizations like Mining Watch Canada paint a different picture. They argue that ETM mining is already taking a toll on the environment ,and on communities that are either hosting extraction for lack of economic alternatives or fighting a losing battle against mines they do not want.
Through that lens, the energy transition currently amounts to “capitalism making a minor course correction, switching from fossil fuels to minerals as the primary input for energy,” said Mining Watch Communications and Outreach Coordinator Jamie Kneen.
No Free Pass for Energy Transition Mining
Take lithium, the silvery white, highly reactive metal so essential to electric vehicles and battery storage. The lithium-ion battery pack in a single EV requires eight kilograms of lithium, says the World Economic Forum. “Lithium supply faces challenges not only from surging demand, but because resources are concentrated in a few places and over half of today’s production is in areas with high water stress.”
This surging demand is unfolding in an “extractivist,” neo-colonial development model that is neither green nor just, Mining Watch Canada warned [pdf] in a March, 2022, report on Canadian mining companies’ growing interest in Chile’s lithium flats.
The report begins in Canada, which launched its Canadian Minerals and Metals Plan (CMMP) in 2019. Of the 160 active lithium projects in Canada, 21 are in the advanced exploration phase, and more than 50% are in Québec, the CMMP says. But Mining Watch says the plan makes no mention of the “exacerbated impacts of such extractive expansion on natural areas, fresh waters, and indigenous rights and territories.”
And the latest federal complement to the CMMP, the Canadian Critical Minerals Strategy issued in December, 2022, “does not do enough to confront the multiple crises Canada—and all humankind—is up against: climate, biodiversity, water, pollution, inequality, migration, and more,” the organization adds. “It’s basically an adaptation of business as usual, and if anything, promises to accelerate the literal bulldozing of Indigenous rights.”
In South America, “Canadian interests are largely supported by the agenda of the Chilean government, which plays a central role not only as a key player in the delivery of contracts and environmental licences to favour the exploration and exploitation of the salt flats, but also in the overt search for investors for mining projects,” Mining Watch said. All this is happening even though “none of the existing lithium projects in Chilean salt flats have been subject to a process of free, prior, informed and non-discriminatory consultation with the Indigenous peoples affected by their operations.”
And Washington, DC-based Earthworks cautions that ETM mining practices in the United States are growing hauntingly similar to the unjust and destructive modus operandi of fossil fuel extraction. “The urgency of the transition to clean energy has created an incentive for the federal government to rush forward risky mineral processing projects,” the group wrote in December, 2022.
After the Biden administration earmarked US$2.8 billion for mineral processing facilities needed to build EVs, Earthworks found a “serious red flag” in reports that roughly $114 million would be awarded to a nickel processing plant in North Dakota. Owned by Canada’s Talon Mining, the plant would process nickel ore from a proposed mine in Minnesota that one critic called “an assault on Indigenous rights.” The mine is opposed by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and the Sandy Lake Band of Mississippi Chippewa. They fear the mine will poison local watersheds, and that Talon has no sense of how to respond in the face of an accident.
“Announcing a large award to a facility primarily intended to process minerals from a non-existent, controversial mine is wrong and poses many risks,” Earthworks wrote. The group says all such funding must be conditional on recipients doing due diligence along their entire supply chains.
Recycling and Reducing
One big reason for the high tonnage of fossil fuels needed to run an economy is that “you need to burn coal or gas every day for decades” to get something back out of fossil infrastructure, writes Distilled. This is not the case for renewable energy plants: once they’re built, solar and wind systems require little in the way of ETMs.
The exceptions are batteries for EVs and energy storage, which have limited lifespans, and this is where recycling comes in.
End-of-life recycling “has the potential to reduce primary demand compared to total demand in 2040 by approximately 25% for lithium, 35% for cobalt and nickel, and 55% for copper, based on projected demand,” Earthworks estimated in an April, 2021, report.
More conservatively, in its March 2023, update on critical minerals, the IEA calculated [pdf] that “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%.”
Recycling will be key to easing the persistently destructive and unjust pressure that the energy transition is exerting on planet and people, Mining Watch Canada’s Kneen told The Energy Mix in an email. But policies and practices that reduce overall demand are also urgently needed.
“Efficiency measures could start kicking in immediately, and even modest measures [would make a difference],” he added.
Mining Watch also proposes changing attitudes to consumption, beginning with the extent to which the lithium-intensive “massification of electromobility” is being advanced as the lynchpin of the energy transition, Kneen said.