The mineral dilemma behind green tech

The world faces a green paradox — we can’t keep consuming fossil fuels but the renewable alternatives require minerals that need to be mined. In this clear analysis we look at the damage green-technology minerals may do and how we might overcome the challenge.

Fossil fuels are on track to soon become history. In May 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) put out a report calling for a stop to all new fossil fuel development by the end of the year, and for the sales of internal combustion engine cars to discontinue by 2035. This purpose of this aggressive stance on climate change is to align with the Paris goal of having a shot at a maximum 1.5°C temperature rise. The report, Net Zero by 2050, laid out a detailed road map for an accelerated transition to renewables, and many decision-makers are paying attention.

Perhaps surprisingly, clean energy infrastructure involves sourcing significantly more mineral content than is needed for its fossil fuel equivalent; an onshore wind farm, for example, requires nine times more minerals than a gas-fired plant. Compared to an internal combustion car, about six times more minerals are needed to build an electric car. The energy sector represents a growing percentage of world demand for copper, nickel, cobalt, graphite, lithium and many others. In the politics of climate change, the more ambitious the emissions cuts, the faster mineral demand will need to multiply. These issues were presented in a sister 2021 IEA report The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions.

The IEA’s paper predicts that by 2040, green energy demand for critical minerals will have multiplied sixfold from a baseline of 2020. However, in some cases, this expansion of mining will be in a different ballpark. By 2040, total lithium production, largely for lithium-ion batteries, is anticipated to skyrocket 42-fold. For graphite, 25-fold; cobalt, a 21-fold growth; and nickel, a 19-fold multiplication. These figures would change if existing battery technology is superseded, as this would prompt a shift to different balance of materials.

Risking a supply crunch

Geopolitically, production of specific minerals is often concentrated in a fairly small number of countries, many of them politically unstable.

Additionally, the dominance of China in mineral refining is exacerbating tensions with the US, and its position of power could in the future be used as leverage. In the case of the 17 rare earth elements widely used in green tech, especially wind power, it refines about 90 per cent of the global supply, and this dominance is predicted to tighten even further to 95 per cent by 2025. When Donald Trump made the bizarre move in 2019 of offering to buy Greenland from Denmark, it is likely that the island’s rich supply of rare earths was his primary motivation.

In 2019, eight scientists at the UK’s Natural History Museum sent a letter to the British government, warning about intense resource demands resulting from all of the UK’s vehicle fleet becoming electric as part of Britain’s net zero by 2050 target. Specifically, it pointed out that this would involve nearly double the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of the rare earth neodymium, three quarters of the lithium and at least half of the copper. These figures are based on the UK’s 2019 vehicle fleet, and do not factor in its likely growth up to 2050. Because the UK represents about 3 per cent of the global vehicle fleet, such a planet-wide changeover would require around 30 times these quantities.

Meanwhile, the Geological Survey of Finland recently put out a report The Mining of Minerals and the Limits to Growth, whose key message is that current reserves will not supply sufficient metals to meet long-term demand for renewable energy infrastructure. It advocates for resource use policies to be structured around long-term supply considerations, very much the opposite of the present economic-growth-driven arrangement. It emphasised that the grade of mineral ores has been diminishing over time, resulting in increased energy for processing, higher emissions, greater production costs and increasing quantities of mining waste.

The IEA predicts that supply issues are most likely for lithium, battery-grade nickel and rare earths. For many metals, the rate of mineral deposit discovery has been on a downward trend, and the IEA points out that historically the average time lag between the discovery of a deposit and start of production has been 16 years. It is concerned about a “looming mismatch” between demand and future supply.

Environmental damage

  • Mining as a whole is commonly associated with a range of environmental problems.
  • The use of acids, toxic chemicals and copious water in mineral processing.
  • A risk of polluting downstream waterways, and sometimes drinking water supplies too.
  • Production of large quantities of mine tailings.
  • Loss of biodiversity, obviously at the mine site, but also in its surrounding areas.
  • Deforestation. In a current Tasmanian example, the company MMG runs an existing operation mining copper, zinc and lead, and plans to destroy up to 285 hectares of rainforest in the Tarkine region for a new tailings dam. This prompted a blockade that has led to a stream of arrests.
  • Threats to the welfare of indigenous peoples, especially Brazilian tribes facing mining corporations that have been emboldened by far-right president Jair Bolsonaro.
  • Excessive energy use. Mining is energy-intensive, with the production of seven minerals (iron, aluminium, copper, zinc, lead, nickel and manganese) alone being responsible for 7 per cent of the world’s greenhouse emissions. However, there is large energy difference between refining in a country with a renewables-dominated grid, as opposed to a largely coal-fired grid such as China’s.

Once demand struggles to keep up with supply, it is inevitable that a steep increase in “green extractivism” will catalyse an expansion encompassing more controversial and contested projects. These may involve environmentally sensitive areas, national parks, indigenous territories, in deep sea areas or even mining on the moon or asteroids.

Lithium has been dubbed “white gold” because it is pivotally important for current battery technology in the new energy economy. The salt flats in Chile, Bolivia and Argentina are sometimes called the “lithium triangle”. Here, lithium is extracted from brine of salt crusts in a water-intensive process that is causing a lowering of the water table. The Atacama region of northern Chile, where the salt flats lithium industry is presently concentrated, is the driest place on earth, and the lowering water table is causing trouble for llama herders, quinoa farmers and 18 nearby indigenous communities.

Another area of contention is Thacker Pass in Nevada, which contains rare sagebrush habitat and is home to pronghorn antelopes and golden eagles. It also has one of the world’s largest-known lithium resources, and is the site of a planned mega-mine that would be 2.3 miles (3.7km) long and 0.5 miles (0.8km) at its widest. The project is subject to an ongoing blockade involving activists, ranchers and Native Americans. Nevada is home to Tesla’s US Gigafactory that uses large quantities of lithium.

Rare earth mining and processing have a bad reputation due to the presence of unwanted radioactive thorium contamination, and less commonly uranium, in the ore. Baotou, in the Inner Mongolia region of China, is a rare earth processing centre, and wastewater from the plants is discharged into a toxic artificial lake. At Kvanefjeld in Greenland, there are plans for a huge mine that would supply both rare earths and uranium. In rural Victoria, a proposed mineral sands mine supplying some rare earths could threaten the nearby Busch Organics farm with radioactive dust.

Urban mining

One way to moderate the need for mining expansion is by recycling waste electrical and electronic equipment in purpose-built facilities, increasingly referred to as urban mining. E-waste is around 40 to 50 times richer in minerals than mined ores. Research by the Norwegian research agency SINTEF found that urban mining is 17 times less energy-intensive than production from virgin materials.

Quantities of e-waste material are growing fairly quickly, in line with increased high-tech consumption and disposal. There are major environmental benefits in recycling e-waste instead of binning it, or storing it in a drawer and forgetting about it. Recycling of high-tech and green-tech products can be a part of the solution, but it is limited because the exponential growth in demand cannot be matched in real time by availability of recycled material.

Oceania, which takes in Australia and New Zealand, is one of the world’s top regions for e-waste production, and its recycling rate of 8.8 per cent is about half of the global average of 17.4 per cent. An aggressive mix of regulation and more recycling facilities is needed. Australia has a product stewardship policy governing the industry recycling of TVs, computers, monitors and computer peripherals. Victoria has banned the landfilling of e-waste, broadly defined as an electrical item with a battery, plug or cord. So far, New Zealand has not introduced any similar measures.

For the consumer, lithium-ion batteries, up to appliance-sized, can be recycled at many council facilities, and in Australia they are accepted at Battery World stores. Electric vehicle batteries still contain enough charge to repurpose for domestic batteries or large-scale electricity backup storage. These are sometimes known as “second-life batteries”, and the Nissan xStorage domestic battery system is made from former EV batteries. An unwanted EV battery of this type is best removed by a local dealership for recycling when it is swapped for new. It can also be sold on a second-hand marketplace.

While used solar panels are largely sent to landfill, in Victoria this is prohibited under the state’s e-waste laws. Australia has one recycling plant, Reclaim PV based in Adelaide and Brisbane, which asks a recycling fee of A$11 per panel plus the freight cost of transporting the panels. A national network of drop-off points is currently being set up. New Zealand does not have any equivalent facilities. An issue identified following research in Australia is a trend towards removing solar panels prematurely for various reasons, resulting in a plea from researchers to leave them on the roof until they fail. Where panels are removed while they still work, they can be sold second-hand if compliant with the current standards.

A degrowth paradigm

Debate around environment, economy and the renewables transition includes “deep greens” on one side and “light greens” and techno-optimists on the other. While light greens tend to believe that the future can be a renewables-and-electric-cars flavour of business as usual, deep greens disagree. Much of it boils down to differing attitudes toward the notion of “green growth”.

The Mining of Minerals and the Limits to Growth predicts an end to growth economics. It characterises a continuation of the economic growth paradigm as “increasingly ineffective, and a waste of valuable resources.” A fast shift away from fossil fuels is necessary, but feeding the voracious mineral appetite of renewables will cause huge environmental damage unless economic growth is swapped for a planned economic contraction, perhaps along “degrowth” lines.

A degrowth-based society is likely to be energy-constrained, frugal and community-oriented, with custodianship of possessions and resources, greater self-sufficiency and limited mobility. In the waste hierarchy, degrowth aligns well with the “reduce” option at the very top. The challenge is that in order to work, a degrowth society would require everyone to voluntarily live in this fashion, and not just a radical fringe of deep greens.

What might a degrowth approach to electric cars look like? Martin Brueckner from Murdoch University has suggested car-sharing. If every EV were shared among 10 different drivers who would otherwise buy a private EV, this would reduce the quantity of mining for such cars by 90 per cent. Such a model would however be difficult to mandate. Public transport and cycling also have an important role to play, and cities need to be designed with cyclists in mind. A 2021 study in a transport journal found that for urban areas, cycling was 10 times as important as the electric car in reaching a net zero by 2050 climate target.

In the view of Hal Rhoades, northern European coordinator of the Yes to Life, No to Mining activist network, “We cannot mine our way out of the climate crisis.” Perhaps the last word goes to actor Will Rogers, who once said, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

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