Mineral supply for green tech should be part of climate negotiations – scientists

Wind and solar park. (Image from Pxhere, CC0 Public Domain).

An international team of researchers published a paper in Science stating that the global low-carbon revolution could be at risk unless new international agreements and governance mechanisms are put in place to ensure a sustainable supply of rare minerals and metals.

According to the scientists, the main risk emerges from the fact that global supplies of cobalt, copper, lithium, cadmium, and rare earth elements needed for solar photovoltaics, batteries, electric vehicle motors, wind turbines, fuel cells, and nuclear reactors tend to be heavily monopolized by a single country, confronted by social and environmental conflict, or concentrated in poorly functioning markets.

“As the global energy landscape changes, it is becoming more mineral and metal intensive. Thus, the sustainability and security of material supply chains is essential to supporting the energy transition” – Morgan Bazilian, co-author of the study and professor at the Colorado School of Mines

“There is a real possibility that a shortage of minerals could hold back the urgent need for a rapid upscaling of low-carbon technologies,” the experts say. Thus, in their article, they made a series of recommendations to help manage the demand for such low-carbon technology minerals as well as limiting the environmental and public health damage of their extraction and processing.

In a summary of the paper, the researchers outline their key suggestions:

  • Enhance and coordinate international agreements on responsible mining and traceability in order to establish mineral supply justice.
  • Greatly expand the recycling and reuse of rare minerals to extend the lifetimes of products and stretch out reserves.
  • Diversify mineral supply scale to incorporate both small and large-scale operations while allowing miners to have control over mineral revenue through stronger benefit-sharing mechanisms and access to markets.
  • Focus development donor policies to recognize the livelihood potential of mining in areas of extreme poverty rather than just regulating the sector for tax revenues.
  • Stipulate stronger Extended Producer Responsibility for products that use valuable rare minerals. This can ensure that responsibility for the entire lifespan of a product including at the end of its usefulness shifts from users or waste managers to major producers such as Apple, Samsung, and Toshiba.
  • Materials security of essential minerals and metals to be actively incorporated into formal climate planning including establishing a list of “critical minerals” for energy security.

“Our analysis is aimed at galvanizing international policy-makers to include mineral supply concerns for green technologies in climate change negotiations,” Saleem Ali, Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware, said in a media statement. “We need to build on the resolution on mineral governance passed at the United Nations Environment Assembly in 2019 and operationalize a clear action plan on supply chain security for a low carbon transition.”