Do we have enough metals to go green using renewable energy and electric vehicles?

As countries around the world focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, researchers are working to develop a host of green technologies that will mitigate global warming. In addition to the rise of renewable energy, there is a surge in the production of electric vehicles. Electric vehicles are expected to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and combat climate change, as experts believe plug-in vehicles are more climate-friendly than conventional vehicles. As electric cars become more widespread, their environmental impact remains up for debate.

Experts have pointed out that the contribution of electric vehicles to the environment is clouded in the way they are manufactured and charged. Most consumers are only familiar with the “clean” aspects of electric vehicles, while the dirty aspects of the production process often remain out of sight, said Pamela Coke-Hamilton, director of international trade at UNCTAD.

Electric vehicles charge using energy from the electricity grid, which is often powered by fossil fuels. Batteries are a bigger problem for electric vehicles because they are made of rare earth elements such as lithium, nickel and cobalt which are extracted with highly polluting processes. Coming from ecologically sensitive and impoverished places, these rare elements are also linked to human rights violations such as child labor in developing economies.

As the demand for electric vehicles and renewable energy sources increases, the pressure on the metals used in these technologies is also skyrocketing. This also brings us to the essential question related to green technologies in general: Do we have enough metals to go green?

By 2050, the world will need three billion tons of metals like lithium, graphite and cobalt to deploy the wind, solar and geothermal energy that will reduce global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius, world Bank estimates show. This implies that the transition to clean energy will be highly mineral-intensive.

According to IMF, the battery of a typical electric vehicle requires about 8 kg of lithium, 35 kg of nickel, 20 kg of manganese and 14 kg of cobalt. Charging stations for electric vehicles require significant amounts of copper. At the same time, solar panels need silicon, silver, copper and zinc in large quantities, while wind turbines need copper, iron ore and aluminum.

The share of energy from renewables under the International Energy Agency’s roadmap to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 would increase from current levels of around 10% to 60% , while the share of fossil fuels would drop from the current 80% to around 20%. .

Renewable energy investments need to be increased eightfold to replace fossil fuels with low-carbon technologies. This will also lead to a sharp rise in demand for metals.

Current production rates of metals such as graphite, cobalt and nickel seem insufficient compared to the projected increase in consumption until 2050. Supplies of platinum, copper and lithium at current levels show a gap of 30 to 40% compared to demand to meet future needs, the IMF said in a blog.

Can production be increased?

Given the existing reserves, certain minerals such as graphite and vanadium would allow greater production with greater investment in extraction. For minerals like lithium, lead, zinc, silver and silicon, current reserves may not be sufficient for future demand.

Environmental and health cost

The extraction of metals like nickel and cobalt has an environmental and health cost. Nickel is mainly mined in Canada, Australia, Russia, Indonesia and the Philippines. In 2017, the Philippines closed 17 nickel mines for environmental reasons. The Ravensthorpe mine in Western Australia suffered the same fate that year, The Guardian reported.

On the other hand, about 20% of cobalt comes from artisanal mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which represent more than two thirds of the world’s production of this metal. These mines employ 40,000 children, working in dangerous conditions, UNICEF noted.

A report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) said excavations expose miners, including children, to dust that may contain toxic metals such as uranium that cause respiratory illnesses and birth defects.

Sulfur ores from cobalt mines when exposed to air and water can generate sulfuric acid, which has the potential to devastate rivers, streams and aquatic life for hundreds of years. years through a process called acid mine drainage, UNCTAD reported.

Graphite mining can cause similar health problems in nearby communities and contaminate soils around the site, he said.

The transition to sustainable energy requires rethinking the ways in which resources are extracted, consumed, disposed of and reused. To reduce the demand for minerals and their associated impacts, governments can encourage and support greater mineral efficiency through reuse and recycling.

According to a Earthworks A 2019 study on responsible mineral sourcing, mineral efficiency and government recycling policies can reduce primary mineral demand by around 30-40% for some minerals. Recycling batteries could be one of these solutions.

To minimize the environmental cost of mining, governments could reduce unnecessary extraction of luxury and speculative items, an international conference organized by Mining Watch Canada noted. With appropriate public policies in place, demand for some of these minerals could be reduced, experts at the conference said. They also suggested reviewing existing market interventions through subsidies and tax expenditures.

Reiterating the experts, UNCTAD recommended the industry to reduce the need for mining. Scientists are working on ways to replace graphite in electric vehicle batteries with widely available silicon. Due to less use of minerals, batteries would cost less and make electric cars more user-friendly.

Scientists are also considering changes in mining technology that would reduce the carbon footprint. One of them is to develop a natural process of extracting metal and cleaning up mining waste using bacteria, The conversation reported.

Researchers are also looking at ways to use small machines like a swarm of ants to mine metals with a much smaller footprint.

(Edited by : Yashi Gupta)