Wednesday, 26 May 2021

We need mining! At last the popular media is waking up to this

The mining industry has known this for some time- if zero carbon by 2050 is to be attainable, there needs to be a serious ramping up of the supply of raw materials (posting of 21st July 2019). Politicians have promised great things without a passing thought to the fact that attaining their ambitious targets will put enormous demands on what are very finite resources of raw materials.

Now at last the mainstream media seems to be waking up to the fact that switching to a greener economy requires a burst of mining, thanks to reports of a paper published in Nature Reviews Materials, by Prof. Richard Herrington, head of the Natural History Museum's earth sciences department. "The public are not in this space at the moment; I don't think they understand yet the full implications of the green revolution," Prof. Herrington told BBC News.

"The green energy revolution is heavily reliant on raw materials, such as cobalt and lithium, which are currently mainly sourced by mining. We must carefully evaluate acceptable supplies for these metals to ensure that green technologies are beneficial for both people and planet", Prof Herrington said.

Green technology requires non-renewable raw materials sourced from primary geological resources (mines) or secondary supply (reuse or recycling). The ambition is a fully circular economy, in which demand can be satisfied by reuse and recycling; however, we are not yet at that point, and this will be the theme of the panel discussion "What are the limits to achieving a circular economy", at next month's Sustainable Minerals '21

Stocks of secondary supplies and recycling rates are inadequate to meet demand. Even for metals such as aluminium and copper, for which end-of-life recycling is up to 70%, secondary supply still only accounts for 30% of their growing demand; in the case of lithium, recycling currently only accounts for 1% of present demand. Substitution for some of these metals might be possible in alternative technology solutions to reduce reliance on specific commodities, but this is challenging to achieve in such a short timeline. Such alternatives, for example, Li-free multivalent metal-ion batteries to replace Li-ion batteries, are less mature in their development and will take time to industrialise. As a result of these sourcing challenges, mining remains necessary to deliver validated technical solutions needed for the rapid decarbonisation demanded in the Paris Agreement pledge.

In highlighting the need for minerals the paper describes how internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) are the greatest contributors to carbon emissions in the UK. For transport to hit ‘net zero’, the internal combustion engine needs to be eliminated from cars, as recognised by the Committee on Climate Change. To switch the UK’s fleet of 31.5 million ICEVs to battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), it would take an estimated 207,900 tonnes cobalt, 264,600 tonnes lithium carbonate, 7,200 tonnes neodymium and dysprosium and 2,362,500 tonnes copper.  This amount is twice the current annual world production of cobalt, an entire year’s world production of neodymium and three quarters of the world production of lithium. Replacing the estimated 1.4 billion ICEVs worldwide would need forty times these amounts. In addition, the energy revolution towards renewables, that is, wind, solar, wave, tidal, hydro, geothermal and nuclear, together with the newly built infrastructure for delivery, are highly reliant on mineral-based technologies.

The paper goes on to say that 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. We must carefully, creatively and systematically secure a diverse range of acceptable sources for the metals we demand. New frontiers for supply should include neglected mined waste and seeking more regulated mining areas in our own backyard rather than relying on sources with less controllable, fragile and problematic supply chains. The debate about mining our deep ocean, as alternative to terrestrial sources, needs to be resolved. Based on such a broad analysis, we can then make balanced societal choices about metal and mineral supply to deliver the ‘Great Reset’ with a good deal for people and planet.

There is nothing really new in the paper, but it does draw everything together in a clear way, and it is not written by miners, which is probably why it has been taken up by the media, so the hope is that maybe people are listening at last and we can cease banging our heads against the wall?  It also highlights that MEI's Sustainable Minerals '21 next month will be a crucial conference, not only for the minerals industry, but for society in general.



  1. How much electricity is consumed in production of all the elements of a green economy?

    1. Good question. If this paper by Prof. Herrington has brought to the attention of the media that more metal mining is required for the green transition, there is no mention of the energy which will be needed to build wind turbines and EVs, and in particular the enormous amounts of energy needed to actually produce the required metals. No matter what the environmentalists say, we will need fossil fuels for many many years yet, before renewables are able to provide the sole source of energy.

  2. That is why we need "holistic approach" and not "thinking in our own silos".
    Minerals will be there and exploration to exploitation in environmentally sustainable manner is the way forward.


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