An inconvenient truth for climate change
Lofty COP26 goals require mind-blowing quantities of metals Metal Tech News – January 12, 2022
Last updated 1/25/2022 at 3:06pm
It is an inconvenient truth that the low-carbon future envisioned by world leaders that gathered for the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, cannot be built without massive new supplies of minerals and metals.
While battery metals, rare earths, and other critical minerals have garnered the spotlight for their role in building this future of traveling and transporting goods with electric vehicles charged with renewable energy – and rightfully so – the increased quantities of aluminum, copper, and other base metals needed to achieve the more urgent climate goals that emerged from COP26 are staggering.
The global leaders that gathered for the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow not only reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement but determined that limiting the rise in global average temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels does not go far enough. As such, the COP26 delegates have set a new objective of holding global warming to below 1.5C.
The World Bank Group had previously estimated that more than 3 billion tons of minerals and metals will be required to achieve the 2C temperature increase limit outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
This inconvenient truth is due to every facet of a world transported with emissions-free electric vehicles charged with low-carbon energy being much more mineral-intensive than the legacy technologies they are replacing.
Offshore wind, for example, requires nearly 14 times the metals per megawatt of power produced than natural gas and roughly six times more than coal. Charging EVs will also require much more electricity to be fed into global electrical grids, adding an additional multiple to the amount of metals needed.
And the more ambitious COP26 climate goals will require even larger quantities of metals to be delivered in a shorter timeframe.
Wood Mackenzie, a preeminent research firm that has delivered global natural resources analytics for 50 years, estimates that mining companies, financiers, and governments will need to invest approximately US$2 trillion into base metal mines and supply chains over the next 15 years to have a chance of supplying the base metals required to achieve the lofty COP26 objectives.
Even if this hefty sum was committed today, the permitting and development of the large mines is measured in geological time scales when compared to the rapid adoption of the EVs, renewable energy generation, energy storage, and more robust electrical grids needed to achieve the COP26 objectives.
The requisite investments, nor any policy changes that would give the global mining sector a fighting chance of supplying the base metals needed to achieve the COP26 objectives, were definitively addressed by the delegates that assembled in Glasgow.
"The energy transition primarily depends on the pace at which sufficient reserves of mined commodities can be developed, extracted and processed into refined products," WoodMac penned in its "Mission impossible: supplying the base metals for accelerated decarbonization" report. "COP26 aims to ensure as fast an energy transition as possible – but there is little in its objectives that will encourage the development of the base metals supply so critical to achieving it."
Roughly 4.2 million metric tons of aluminum, copper, nickel, zinc, and lead went into the building of EVs and renewable energy infrastructure during 2020.
WoodMac's base metals energy transition outlook, which accounts for developing the known and plausible mines, foresees the quantity of base metals going into renewable energy and electric mobility swelling to 16 million metric tons per year by 2040. Getting to this point, however, would require roughly half a trillion US dollars of investments into the global base metal supply chains and only delivers enough of these basic building materials to limit global warming to 2.5C.
Meeting the 1.5C target that emerged from COP26, however, would require an estimated 32 million metric tons of base metals per year by 2040 and an investment of approximately US$2 trillion over the next 15 years.
"If this capital is not mobilized in time, then an accelerated energy transition cannot be achieved," WoodMac penned in a summary of its findings.
Even with rapid funding, delivering the enormous quantities of base metals being demanded by COP26 climate goals may be mission impossible for the global mining sector.
Achieving the 1.5C temperature rise limit "strains project delivery beyond breaking point – from people and plant to financing and permitting," according to WoodMac's "Mission impossible" report.
Wood Mackenzie Senior Vice President of Metals and Mining Julian Kettle, who co-authored the report, says the global miners will be further strained by the need to lower their own carbon footprints to net-zero while at the same time ramping up base metals production to unprecedented levels.
"Ironically, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for metals is also a headache, since the supply chain is unlikely to be able to scale fast enough to meet demand," Kettle penned in a December article. "Even if it can, it will struggle to reduce its own emissions fast enough to offset the growth in output."
Maximizing the recycling of base metals can help fill some of the accelerated energy transition needs but does not come close to filling the massive new demands for aluminum, copper, nickel, and zinc.
While the COP26 delegates took a firm philosophical stance on climate change, WoodMac did not see any definitive commitment to the investments or policies to ensure that the metals needed to build its envisioned future are available.
"In my view, COP26 was something of a paradox, with some grand statements of intent yet – so far – little actionable policy to enable the delivery of the metals needed for an accelerated energy transition. Policymakers are yet to heed the challenge of developing metals supply and the slow timelines it entails," wrote Kettle. "Unless the necessary policies – and mind-blowing level of finance – to enable accelerated mining development are forthcoming, good intentions will remain just that."