The green revolution has started and as the push for a low carbon economy gains pace, it generates some searching questions. Let's consider the key area of Electric Vehicles (EV’S).
In 2012, just 50,000 EV’s were sold which has risen to an estimated 2 million this year and a global forecast of 20-25 million by 2030. This is an impressive exponential increase and Governments have committed to the targets that will drive the numbers up.
EV’s need electric motors and batteries to store energy. People need to understand the volume of metals that will be required as the revolution gains pace. Mines need finance and planning – and depending on the type and scale of operation that can take 20 years to develop.
There are also environmental, community and geopolitics to consider. EV batteries use cobalt, nickel, lithium, and manganese. The future predictions of cobalt volumes is three times the current level. The future mining resources available for nickel are lower grade deposits not suitable for battery production. Lithium requirements are expected to quadruple by 2025 but is not seen as a major issue by finance houses. In the UK prospecting for lithium is taking place in Cornwall with the potential to extract the metal from deep geothermal waters. Manganese will see a steady rise in consumption but only a few countries in the world can produce the metal which brings a number of risks for western economies. China is both the largest producer and consumer of manganese. Some prospecting of manganese nodules as well as cobalt is taking place in the deep ocean but there are significant environmental, technological, and political barriers to address.
I have mentioned one small segment of the green revolution and there are many more metals to discuss. The question we need to address is whether shortages will hold up decarbonisation? Even if current resources of a particular metal are sufficient for the foreseeable future, shortages could still be possible. The issue centers on need and whether there is an appetite to develop future reserves.
How could these shortages be mitigated? There is rising interest in the EU and elsewhere in recycling tonnes of valuable materials discarded from high tech products. This could limit the impact of any lag between production and consumption. There is also ongoing research taking place to look at supplementing or replacing existing battery metals with other elements.
There are wider social and environmental impacts to consider with increased mining. The environmental impact of mining can be large and mining communities are increasingly starting to associate mining with hardship. In some cases these factors are leading to a rejection of new mining ventures and disruption to operations already in existence. Some national governments are starting to respond to these concerns by introducing more stringent legislative measures. Stakeholders will drive standards up – that is clear, and there are some great examples of the mining industry implementing innovative schemes and projects but these are not always widely promoted.
One thing is for sure. We will need more strategic metals in the future.