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Metal constraints for a low-carbon economy?

This was the question Leiden researchers from the Institute of Environmental Sciences CML posed in an article published last week in the journal Resources, Conservation, Recycling

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If is often thought that a transition to a low carbon economy needs an enormous increase of the use of metals like steel and copper, next to smaller amounts of critical raw materials. When one looks at the power generation and mobility systems in themselves, that is true. An electric car needs a battery. Wind turbines need strong magnets. Replacing a normal car for an electric car can easily require dozens or even 100s of times more Lithium per car, for instance.

But the current amounts used in such applications are relatively low, Leiden researchers found. One hence must look if the growth of use in such sectors will be large compared to current dominant applications. Applying Life cycle assessment and Input Output methods, tools pioneered by CML, scenarios were developed for the power and automotive sectors in specific and the wider economy in general. Overall, the differences between the business as usual and low-carbon scenarios were much more moderate as thought. ‘In both types of scenarios, you see for most metals a demand that is 3 to 4 times higher in 2050 as now’ says Arjan de Koning, who led the study. ‘In the low-carbon scenario, we see only for Neodymium and Dysprosium a factor 5-8 growth in demand. At the same times for these metals the current reserves are sufficient to cover their cumulative demand until 2050’. Does this imply there is no problem ? ‘No, that is too simple’ says Arnold Tukker, CML director. ‘Tripling or quadrupling resource supply is an enormous challenge. You do not open mines just like that. You need years of planning and large investments. These only will be done if mining companies and their banks are certain that the demand will be there. Some materials come from conflict areas, like the Congo. Some mines are concentrated in just a few countries, who can act as monopolist. It is hence very appropriate that the EU tries to tackle such challenges via its Raw Materials Initiative, the EIT Raw Materials, and the Circular Economy Package. It is just that such problems must be solved anyway, whether one implements low-carbon technologies or not. So, let us not use the lack of materials as an excuse to  postpone the transition to a carbon neutral economy!’.

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The paper is available as open access via: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921344917303762