The greater the climate ambitions, the more metals will be needed
Metals and minerals will be key for a clean energy transition. But what does that mean concretely? In 2020, the World Bank Group published a report entitled Minerals for Climate Action: The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition, which intends to provide answers to that question.
An interview with Daniele La Porta, Senior Mining Specialist at the World Bank
Daniele La Porta is a Senior Mining Specialist with the Energy and Extractives Global Practice of the World Bank, where she works on mineral sector governance and sustainable development in mineral-rich developing countries. She also leads the Bank’s Climate-Smart Mining Initiative, which aims to support resource-rich developing countries in benefiting from the increasing demand for strategic minerals for the clean energy transition, while effectively decarbonizing and reducing the material footprint of their mining sector. Daniele is Brazilian with degrees in geology and environmental management.
Ms. La Porta, what will be the role of metals in the clean energy transition?
The clean energy transition will require the significant input of a range of minerals and metals. Renewable energy technologies are key to reaching a net zero emission future, and they are more mineral-intensive than their fossil fuel counterparts. As a rule of thumb, we have found in our report that the greater our climate ambitions, the more minerals and metals will be needed.
In your report, you considered 17 different metals and minerals and their estimated demand until 2050. Which of them will be the “winners”?
It is difficult to assess who the real “winners” will be because it will depend heavily on what the future clean energy pathway will look like. For example, on the one hand, the demand for graphite, lithium, and cobalt – so-called “battery minerals” – could increase by nearly 500 % by 2050. But there are uncertainties surrounding the demand – not only which technology will predominate, but which sub-technology.
Without minerals, a low-carbon future will not be possible. And without a climate-smart metals sector, the clean-energy value chain will not be truly ‘clean’.
Daniele La Porta
Can you describe the role of the metals produced by Aurubis, i.e., copper, lead, nickel, silver, and zinc, for future demand coming from energy technologies?
We considered minerals like copper, nickel, and lead as cross-cutting minerals. These minerals are important to the clean energy transition because they are used across a wide variety of technologies and are not dependent on one specific technology. Silver and zinc feature in only a small range of energy technologies and the anticipated increases in demand are a small percentage of current production levels.
Features: easily shaped and tough. An excellent conductor of heat and electricity.
Uses: in nearly all green technologies, particularly wind energy, photovoltaics, and electric vehicles.
Features: strong formability before it breaks, resistant to certain acids.
Uses: in wind energy, photovoltaics, and geothermal energy, to name a few examples.
Features: medium-hard, malleable, can be polished easily. Very resistant to air, water, hydrochloric acid, and leaches at room temperature.
Uses: for nearly all CO2-free energy sources.
Features: soft, easily formable, with very high electrical conductivity.
Uses: especially in solar energy.
Features: easily formable between 100 and 200°C, otherwise fairly brittle. Forms a weather-resistant protective layer of zinc oxide and zinc carbonate in air, so it is often used as corrosion protection.
Uses: in wind and solar energy, as well as hydropower.
Let’s be more concrete: How will the demand for copper increase, for instance?
Based on the most ambitious scenario, which limits the rise of the global temperature to well below 2°C, copper demand from clean energy technologies alone may amount to up to 40–50 million t until 2050. Even in a mid-range scenario, demand will be about 30 million t. These projections don’t even include the associated infrastructure like transmission lines or the physical parts like chassis of newly built electric vehicles.
To meet future demand, how important will recycling be? What are the challenges?
While our report underscores the important role that the recycling and reuse of minerals will play in meeting demand, it also highlights that even if we scale up end-of-life recycling rates for certain minerals, like copper and aluminum, by 100 %, recycling and reuse would still not be enough to meet the demand from energy technologies. The challenge with meeting most of the demand from recycling is partly due to a lack of existing material to recycle and reuse, along with costs and technological barriers.
Smelters around the world should make energy efficiency a key part of their decarbonization strategy.
How should smelters like Aurubis behave when striving to meet future demand for minerals while contributing to the clean energy transition?
In addition to providing the minerals that are needed for a low-carbon future, large smelters may rely on non-renewable energy sources to meet their large energy needs. Smelters around the world should make energy efficiency a key part of their decarbonization strategy, in addition to committing to sourcing energy from renewable sources. From a recycling perspective, smelters have a comparative advantage in scaling up recycling and should therefore pave the way in innovative practices to overcome some of the technical and economic barriers to recycling.
What challenges still need to be tackled by 2050?
A challenging task revolves around the sheer scale of the rising demand for strategic minerals and metals in such a short time frame. We will need to use a huge amount of energy, land, and water to meet the demand for low-carbon minerals. Another challenging task concerns the lack of capacity and knowledge about how to minimize the carbon and environmental footprint of the mining industry in developing countries. Mineral recycling will play an important role in meeting future demand and will need policy support to overcome the economic, technical, and environmental barriers. The energy sector will also need to play a role in designing low-carbon technologies that can be easily disassembled to enable minerals to be part of the circular economy.