Are batteries and solar photovoltaics really going to save us from climate change?

Global production of batteries, solar panels, electric cars and wind turbines could stutter without more action to shore up the supply of vital rare minerals and metals, a team of international experts have warned.

Without more reuse and recycling of rare materials such as lithium, cadmium, cobalt and copper, and international agreements to safeguard their supply around the world, the world could face a global shortage of these crucial green materials, the experts argue.

Demand for cobalt, copper, lithium, cadmium, and rare earth elements needed for solar photovoltaics, batteries, electric vehicle motors, wind turbines, fuel cells, and nuclear reactors is set to explode in the coming years as countries around the world invest heavily in greening their economies.

But according to these experts from the University of Sussex, global supplies of these materials are often concentrated in a single country or heavily monopolised by one country, often politically unstable and environmentally sensitive.

For example, Democratic Republic of Congo has 64 per cent of the world's cobalt. 

"Mining, metals, and materials extraction is the hidden foundation of the low-carbon transition. But it is far too dirty, dangerous, and damaging to continue on its current trajectory," said Benjamin Sovacool, professor of energy policy at the University of Sussex.

Sovacool predicts that tougher competition for land-based supplies of rare minerals and metals will prompt some to look to the ocean or even space to find mineral reserves.

But rather than looking skyward, the researchers insist governments should focus on making resource extraction more sustainable, by inking international agreements on responsible mining, expanding the reuse and recycling of materials, diversifying supply chains and implementing strong Extended Producer Responsibility requirements on products that use valuable materials.

This last measure 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.

"As the global energy landscape changes, it is becoming more mineral and metal intensive," said Morgan Bazilian, professor and director of the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines. "Thus, the sustainability and security of material supply chains is essential to supporting the energy transition. How we shape that pathway will have important consequences for everything from the environment, to development, and geopolitics."

So, this blog concludes that we need to challenge our own development and supply strategies in the energy sector especially if we are to run a truly sustainable business model.

Edwin Hamilton