There are more than sufficient natural resources and minerals to meet the needs of a global zero-carbon energy system, and that system will impose a far smaller environmental impact on the world than today’s fossil fuel based system. But, as the global Energy Transitions Commission highlights in its latest report, “Material and Resource Requirements for the Energy Transition”, large investments and strong policy support are needed to ensure that the supply of some key minerals grows quickly and sustainably over the next decade to meet rapidly growing demand.
The future net zero emission economy will depend on huge increases in electricity supply and demand, rising from a global total of ~28,000 TWh in 2022 to over ~100,000 TWh by 2050. This will require massive deployment of solar and wind power capacity, a major expansion of electricity grids, and huge growth in the production of batteries and electric vehicles and electrolysers for green hydrogen production.
This new energy system will require significant resources of both land (primarily for solar PV farms) and water (used in the power system, carbon capture, and a range of mining and refining processes). But the total land and water requirements are similar to those required by the fossil fuel based system, and less than 3% of the land and water resources used by global agriculture.
Building the new energy system will also result in some initial CO2 emissions – the first generation of any new clean technology has to be built using fossil fuel based energy. But the production of materials to support the energy transition will result in total global cumulative life cycle emissions of 15-30 GtCO2e, compared with the ~40 GtCO2e produced every year from the current fossil-fuel-based energy system; and while the former will fall towards zero as the mining and refining sectors decarbonise, emissions from fossil fuels would continue in perpetuity if we do not transition to a new system.
So, while land and water requirements must be managed carefully, particularly in densely populated and water-stressed regions, and while life cycle emissions from material production must be minimised, the key challenges relate to the minerals and other materials required for the energy transition.
The scale of materials needed for the energy transition
Between 2022–2050, the energy transition could require the production of 6.5 billion tonnes of end-use materials, 95% of which would be steel, copper and aluminium, with much smaller quantities of critical minerals/materials such as lithium, cobalt, graphite or rare earths. This cumulative material extraction compares with the over 8 billion tonnes of coal currently extracted annually.
There is no fundamental shortage of any of the raw materials to support a global transition to a net-zero economy: geological resources exceed the total projected cumulative demand from 2022-50 for all key materials, whether arising from the energy transition or other sectors. The key issues are therefore:
“There are enough resources and minerals in the world for the energy transition. But in some key minerals – particularly lithium and copper – it will be challenging to scale up supply fast enough over the next decade to keep pace with rapidly rising demand. Governments, regulators, producers and consumers must work together to increase recycling, improve material efficiency, invest in new mining, and regulate environmental and social standards,” said Adair Turner, Chair of the Energy Transitions Commission.
Rapid demand growth could lead to supply shortages in the next decade if four key challenges are not met
Without strong action to improve materials efficiency, increase recycling or increase mined supply, there could be significant supply gaps for six key energy transition materials: lithium, nickel, graphite, cobalt, neodymium and copper. This raises the risk that high prices could delay the energy transition.
Four actions must be taken to reduce that risk and expand supply quickly and sustainably:
“This is another brilliant analysis by the ETC. They show that the environmental impact of the renewable energy system is dramatically lower than that of the fossil fuel system, that we have enough minerals for the renewable revolution and that there are no insoluble barriers to change.” said Kingsmill Bond, Senior Principal in the Strategy Team at Rocky Mountain Institute.
“Minerals are critical, but we must mine them as if they were not. Demand for minerals will grow dramatically in the next decades, and our shared goal must be to ensure that this is being met in a way which enables both people and the planet to thrive. The Energy Transitions Commission’s report provides key analysis and data on material and resource requirements which will help the industry and key stakeholders ensure that the right conditions are in place to deliver the materials we need for the energy transition, while enhancing our industry’s contribution to sustainable development.” said Rohitesh Dhawan, President and CEO, International Council on Mining & Metals.
“Material and Resource Requirements for the Energy Transition” has been developed in collaboration with ETC members from across industry, financial institutions and environmental advocacy including Arcelor Mittal, BloombergNEF, EBRD, HSBC, Iberdrola, Impax, National Grid, Rio Tinto, Rocky Mountain Institute, Schneider Electric, Volvo Group, the World Resources Institute, Worley and Ørsted.
This report constitutes a collective view of the Energy Transitions Commission. Members of the ETC endorse the general thrust of the arguments made in this report but should not be taken as agreeing with every finding or recommendation. The institutions with which the Commissioners are affiliated have not been asked to formally endorse the report.
To read the full report, visit: https://www.energy-transitions.org/publications/material-and-resource-energy-transition
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