Mine the Gap
The net-zero carbon revolution will mean adapting to a world with a lot more mining. (Note: This was originally published on the Geolsoc website and is reproduced here with supporting figure and references).
The industrial revolution paved the way for huge advances in the standard of living across the world. Globally, we now face a different challenge: the need to reach net zero carbon by 2050 to avert or minimise the worst effects of climate change.
The switch to net zero carbon will require wholesale transfer of energy production from carbon sources to renewable sources (solar, wind, wave, geothermal). It will also entail a revolution in the automotive sector as all vehicles from private to public to haulage become powered by Li-ion battery technology.
The challenges to all of this are substantial and can be approached from several angles but one particularly important question is how the material for the new energy mix and Li-ion batteries are sourced. Mining currently has a bad reputation with respect to environmental issues, often reported in terms of its capacity for exploitation and damage. However, in extracting the materials needed to restructure our way of life, mining is going to be absolutely fundamental to the green revolution.
Renewable energy sources and Li-ion batteries are more material intensive that their carbon counterparts, which entails a huge increase in material demand. Estimations vary, from an increasing demand of hundreds of percent to thousands for several critical metals such as copper, lithium, graphite and cobalt. For some elements, this could mean the amount we need to mine over the next 25 years will be equivalent to the sum total extracted over the course of human history (see left).
It remains to be seen how much of this can be supplied by improved recycling and a circular economy, but there is no version of the future that will not involve substantially upscaling the extraction of the materials we need.
Whilst I was undertaking further education my then supervisor was responsible for running the exploration and mining course; consistently one of the most popular to attend as students saw the practical benefit and job opportunities involved.
University courses like these are going to become increasingly important. The skillsets required to start a mine are diverse, from exploration for the raw material to obtaining a social license to operate and the requisite stakeholder engagement. From mineralogists to engineers to hydrologists, our universities are going to need to train up a next generation capable of practically meeting the extractive demands of the net zero target.
Currently, the supply of many of these elements requires a complex globally linked chain totalling tens of thousands of kilometres back and forth. Reaching the net zero target will require shortening these chains where practicably possible and therefore bringing domestic supply chains and domestic mines back online.
One obviously can’t build a mine without a resource to extract, but many European countries, including the UK, still have world class mining districts within their international borders. Part of their extraction will require geologists prepared to make the positive case to general media and the wider public that mining not only exists for the general good of society, but is absolutely integral to reaching our net zero target.
Further Reading / Viewing
Climate Smart Mining, 2018, World Bank. (Video: ~3 mins) https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/extractiveindustries/brief/climate-smart-mining-minerals-for-climate-action
Mining our way to a low carbon future. Lucy Crane (Video ~14 mins) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWTkiQ64u_U&t=231s
Is Zero Carbon by 2050 attainable. Barry Wills (Blog) https://min-eng.blogspot.com/2019/07/is-zero-carbon-by-2050-attainable.html