Earthworks supports the transition to a 100% renewable energy economy—one that no longer depends on fossil fuels—an essential shift, if we are to avert catastrophic climate change. Solar, wind power and battery technologies are competitive and growing rapidly, while their costs continue to fall. Yet, as with any transition, we must prepare for, and ensure against, unintended consequences.
Renewable energy and battery production rely on minerals such as cobalt, nickel, lithium and copper. New research by the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures shows that demand for these minerals is skyrocketing.
Mineral extraction already brings devastating harm to people and the environment, fueling human rights violations, water pollution and wildlife and forest destruction. Metals mining is the leading industrial polluter in the United States, and contributes 10% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, according to the UN Environment Programme. Rising minerals demand means human and environmental costs of mineral extraction are likely to rise steeply as well.
Battery metals are of greatest concern
Lithium, cobalt and nickel–key minerals used to make the lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles (EVs)–are of principal concern, based on research Earthworks commissioned from the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. The study shows that in a 100% renewable energy future, demand could reach 136% of the documented nickel deposits that are economically feasible to extract, 280% for lithium and 426% for cobalt.
The skyrocketing demand for these minerals is driving the expansion of mining in geographic “hotspots” throughout the world – and even to the depths of the ocean – with disproportionately negative impacts in the Global South.
To avoid the mistakes of the past, a responsible materials transition must accompany the renewable energy transition. We have an opportunity, if we act now, to ensure that our emerging clean energy system moves away from its dependence on dirty mining. As we embrace clean energy technologies in pursuit of our climate goals, we must protect community health, water, human rights and the environment. Doing so will require a concerted commitment to:
Accelerating these necessary shifts in the design, sourcing, takeback and recirculation of products, materials and services will allow societies to obtain the benefits of minerals without imposing the high costs of their extraction.
We believe in humanity’s boundless capacity for innovation. Renewable energy innovation must be accompanied by innovation in the way we extract and use minerals. Only then will clean energy be truly clean. We hope you will join us and our allies to collaboratively identify and pursue opportunities to accelerate the transition to a truly clean energy future.
The UTS-ISF report Responsible Minerals Sourcing for Renewable Energy:
Earthworks’ Making Clean Energy Clean, Just & Equitable: