The transition to a low-carbon economy requires a massive increase in the production and consumption of metals that are essential for clean energy technologies. However, many experts warn that the supply of these metals may not keep up with the demand, leading to a potential shortage and higher prices. How can the world avoid a green-metals crunch and ensure a smooth and sustainable decarbonisation?
The challenge of green metals
Green metals are those that are used in renewable energy sources, electric vehicles, energy storage, and other technologies that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the most important green metals are copper, nickel, cobalt, lithium, graphite, and rare earths. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), a carbon-neutral world in 2050 will require 35 million tonnes of green metals a year, compared to 4 million tonnes in 2020. Adding aluminium and steel to the mix, the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC), a think-tank, forecasts that demand between now and then will hit 6.5 billion tonnes.
However, meeting this demand is not easy. The extraction and processing of these metals are often associated with environmental and social impacts, such as water pollution, land degradation, human rights violations, and geopolitical risks. Moreover, the current supply chains are highly concentrated in a few countries, such as China, Chile, Australia, and Congo, making them vulnerable to disruptions and price fluctuations. The IEA estimates that more than $1 trillion of investment is needed by 2030 to boost the production capacity of green metals.
The solutions for green metals
To avoid a green-metals crunch, the world needs to adopt a combination of strategies that can increase the supply, reduce the demand, and improve the efficiency of these metals. Some of the possible solutions are:
- Diversifying the sources of supply: This involves exploring new mining projects in different regions, as well as developing alternative sources of green metals, such as recycling, urban mining, deep-sea mining, and asteroid mining. For example, recycling lithium-ion batteries can recover up to 90% of cobalt and 75% of lithium. Urban mining refers to extracting metals from electronic waste, such as smartphones and laptops. Deep-sea mining involves extracting minerals from the seabed. Asteroid mining is an ambitious idea that aims to harvest resources from near-Earth objects.
- Innovating new technologies: This involves developing new materials and designs that can reduce the amount of green metals needed for clean energy technologies or replace them with more abundant alternatives. For example, some researchers are working on solid-state batteries that use less cobalt or no cobalt at all. Others are experimenting with perovskite solar cells that use less rare earths than conventional ones. Some companies are also creating wind turbines that do not require permanent magnets made from rare earths.
- Improving the efficiency and circularity: This involves using green metals more efficiently and extending their lifespan through better management and maintenance. It also involves creating a circular economy that minimises waste and maximises reuse and recycling of green metals. For example, some initiatives are promoting the sharing and leasing of electric vehicles instead of owning them. Others are developing standards and platforms for tracing and tracking green metals along their life cycle.
The benefits of green metals
Avoiding a green-metals crunch is not only necessary for achieving the climate goals, but also beneficial for creating economic opportunities and social benefits. According to the World Bank, increasing the production and use of green metals can create millions of jobs, especially in developing countries that have rich mineral resources. It can also foster innovation and competitiveness in clean energy sectors, such as renewable energy, electric vehicles, and energy storage. Moreover, it can improve the environmental and social performance of mining activities by adopting best practices and safeguards.
The transition to a low-carbon economy is a huge challenge that requires a massive transformation of the energy system. Green metals are indispensable for this transformation, but they also pose significant risks and uncertainties. The world needs to act fast and smart to avoid a green-metals crunch and ensure a smooth and sustainable decarbonisation.