Minerals for Climate Action: The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition
Bottom Line: It too often goes overlooked that the energy transition to a low-carbon future will be highly mineral intensive. In fact, the more ambitious the climate policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the more mining that will be needed. This centers on cross-cutting minerals used in a list of clean energy and storage technologies and concentrated minerals used in just a few of them. A shortage of these minerals could actually block progress on abating climate change. Recycling and reuse have a major role to play, but large-scale mining at the global level cannot be avoided. And while the emissions from these operations are significant, “smart mining” programs can help address the challenges and provide economic benefits.
A low-carbon future will be very mineral intensive because clean energy technologies need more materials than fossil-fuel-based technologies.
Any lower-carbon pathway will increase the overall demand of minerals.
Greater ambition on climate change goals (1.50C–20C or below), as outlined by the Paris Agreement, requires installing more of these green technologies and will therefore lead to a larger material footprint.
For example, about 3,000 solar panels are needed for 1 megawatt (MW) of capacity of solar PV; this means that a 200 MW solar PV project could be as big as 550 American football fields.
Because of the material intensity of low-carbon technologies, any potential shortages in mineral supply could impact the speed and scale at which certain technologies may be deployed globally.
Cross-cutting minerals, such as copper, chromium, and molybdenum, are used across a wide variety of clean energy generation and storage technologies and have stable demand conditions. This is because these minerals do not depend on the deployment of any one specific technology within the clean energy transition.
On the other hand, concentrated minerals, such as lithium, graphite, and cobalt, are needed only for one or two technologies and therefore possess higher demand uncertainty as technological disruption and deployment could significantly impact their demand.
Beyond cross-cutting versus concentrated, some minerals face higher levels of changes in demand from the shift to a low-carbon future.
While the recycling and reuse of minerals can play a key role in reducing emissions, mining will still be required to supply the critical minerals needed to produce these low-carbon technologies, even with large future increases in recycling rates.
Despite the higher mineral intensity of renewable energy technologies, the scale of associated greenhouse gas emissions is a fraction of that of fossil fuel technologies. The carbon and material footprints, however, cannot be overlooked.
Limiting the carbon footprint of minerals needed for the clean energy transition may offer double wins, helping to boost economic growth and reduce environmental risks in resource-rich developing countries.
As one example, the World Bank’s Climate-Smart Mining Initiative addresses these challenges by working together with governments, development partners, industries, and civil society to minimize the new emissions from a low-carbon transition and work closely with resource-rich developing countries to responsibly supply these strategic minerals for clean energy technologies.
Read the full study here.
Estimated Installed Capacity in 2050 Across Mitigation Scenarios
- A low-carbon future will be very mineral intensive because clean energy technologies need more materials than fossil-fuel-based technologies, with the more ambitious scenarios needing the most mining.
- Any potential shortages in mineral supply could impact the speed and scale at which certain technologies may be deployed globally.
- Cross-cutting minerals are used across a range of clean energy generation and storage systems, with concentrated minerals only needed for a few of them.
- Even with heavy recycling and reuse of these minerals, large-scale mining operations will remain integral to the energy transition.
- The greenhouse gas emissions associated with this mining cannot be overlooked, as “smart mining” initiatives and operations are most vital.
Read the full study here.