The growing demand for critical minerals in clean energy

In a recent report by the Environmental Justice Foundation, the need for deep-sea mining in the face of increasing demand for critical minerals for the green transition is being questioned. The report, titled "Critical Minerals and the Green Transition", examines the future demand for minerals such as cobalt, copper, lithium, manganese, nickel, and rare earth elements, which are essential for renewable energy technologies and storage.

Key Minerals and Their Projected Demand

Cobalt, essential in Li-ion batteries, faces uncertain future demand due to evolving battery chemistries. By 2040, the report suggests that 60-70% of cobalt demand could stem from clean energy technologies. Lithium, another pivotal element in energy storage, may witness its demand soar to 590% of 2021 production levels by 2040. Copper, crucial in wind and solar PV systems, is also expected to see significant demand increases, with over 40% of total copper demand potentially coming from clean energy applications by 2040. Similarly, manganese and nickel are forecasted to face substantial demand hikes due to their applications in various energy technologies. The situation for rare earth elements like neodymium and dysprosium, primarily used in wind turbines and energy storage, is equally pressing, with demand expected to outstrip current production rates by 2030.

The Role of Recycling and Technology in Managing Demand

The report emphasises the significant role of recycling in managing future mineral demands. For instance, effective recycling could cut primary cobalt demand by 35% by 2040, with recycled cobalt potentially fulfilling up to 62% of annual demand by 2050. Similar trends are noted for other minerals, highlighting recycling’s importance in sustainable mineral resource management.

Substitutability is another vital aspect. The transition to alternative battery chemistries, like Lithium-iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries that require neither nickel nor cobalt, could considerably reduce the demand for these minerals. Advances in technologies such as sodium-ion batteries could further decrease reliance on these critical minerals.

The foundation’s conclusion advocates for strategic investments and regulatory frameworks to meet future mineral demands without resorting to harmful practices like deep-sea mining. Emphasising green technology chemistries, transitioning to a circular economy, and enhancing recycling rates are identified as key strategies. Combined with technological advancements, these approaches can effectively cater to the growing demand for critical minerals essential for the clean energy sector.

In summary, the report calls for a multifaceted approach to sustainably meet the mineral requirements of the clean energy sector. This approach includes improving recycling, exploring substitutability, and fostering technological innovation, all underpinned by supportive policies and investments. This sustainable path not only ensures the continuous growth of renewable energy technologies but also upholds environmental and social justice, aligning with broader sustainable development goals.

Source: Critical Minerals and the Green Transition | The Environmental Justice Foundation

Source: Critical Minerals and the Green Transition | The Environmental Justice Foundation
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