Will a scramble to mine metals undermine the clean energy revolution?

Creating green technologies like batteries and solar panels requires a lot of minerals, and a lot of mining. The challenge now is to extract what we need without destroying the environment

Environment 10 November 2021

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Lithium is crucial for batteries, and Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni has the largest known deposits

Kseniya Ragozina/Alamy

IF THE unofficial rallying cry of the fossil fuel lobby is “drill, baby, drill”, renewable energy should have one too: “dig, baby, dig”. If we are going to hit our climate targets, the world is going to need a lot of new mines.

“Minerals are essential ingredients of the future clean energy system,” says Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA). “If we try to visualise our future clean energy systems – millions of electric vehicles, cars, buses, windmills, solar panels – they need minerals to build. Huge amounts of minerals.”

He isn’t exaggerating. According to a recent IEA report, if the world is to reach its target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, overall demand for what it calls “critical minerals” – including lithium, copper, cobalt, nickel and the rare earth elements, all of them vital ingredients of clean energy tech – will increase sixfold. Another recent estimate from Japan’s National Institute for Environmental Studies forecasts that electrifying transport and expanding renewable power generation will increase demand for minerals about seven times by 2050.

That presents a huge challenge to the realisation of our clean energy dreams. While there is no shortage of the minerals themselves, getting them out of the ground in time, in sufficient quantities, and without creating another environmental monster, is a different matter. Ultimately, we have no choice. “We need to do it,” says Kingsmill Bond, a strategist at energy think tank Carbon Tracker. “But we need to do it the very best …

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