‘Delivering net zero will require massive expansion of mining’

New research suggests demand for raw materials and rare earth metals could surge by 500% in order to deliver the low carbon technologies needed to decarbonise

Festival Net Zero 2021

The global mission to reach net zero will result in increased levels of mining for raw materials, with increases in demand for graphite, cobalt and lithium projected to increase by 500%.

That is the verdict of experts including Professor Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum – in a recently published research paper, he revealed that green technologies generally require non-renewable raw materials in their construction.

He highlights that these materials will need to be mined or reused and recycled. He claims that although the aim is to adopt an entirely circular economy approach, the world is ‘not anywhere near’ achieving this.

Lithium, cobalt and copper are some of the vital raw materials that are needed for electric vehicles (EVs) and according to the International Resource Panel, recycling only accounts for 1% of the present demand for lithium.

The UK has set a target of all new cars becoming electric by 2030 but switching the single nation’s 31.5 million petrol and diesel vehicles to electric models would require twice the existing annual global production of cobalt, a year’s production of neodymium and around 75% of the world’s annual production of lithium.

EVs are not the only low carbon technologies that require such materials – photovoltaic cells for solar power require many raw elements and rare earth metals, as do wind and hydropower projects.

The research has revealed that even relatively minor increases in the need for these minerals would mean a vast expansion of mining; a 9% increase in aluminium demand by 2030 would require 103 million additional tonnes to be mined, more than the global production of 2019, according to the World Bank Report.

The report stated: “The ambition remains to recycle and reuse as much as we can; however, new-mined resources will be required in the short term to enable green technologies and infrastructure.

“There are sufficient geological resources to deliver the required metals but we must carefully balance the need to mine with the requirement to tackle environmental and social governance issues and to deliver sustainable development goals, ensuring outcomes are beneficial for both people and planet.”

 

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