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Driving the renewable energy transition: The critical role of minerals and responsible mining

The global push towards renewable energy is set to significantly increase demand for critical minerals and metals such as lithium, copper, manganese and rare earth elements. Over the past five years, the market for these essential materials has doubled, and projections indicate that demand for these minerals in clean energy technologies could increase by two to four times by 2040.

Demand surge and the need for responsible mining

As the world transitions to renewable energy, there will be an uptick in the mining of these essential materials. However, the total amount of material extraction needed to support a green energy future by 2040 is substantially less than that required to sustain a fossil-fuel-based energy system. Fossil fuels necessitate continuous, non-recyclable supply flows for combustion, whereas critical minerals used in renewable technologies can be installed in equipment with a long lifespan and are recyclable at the end of their lifecycle.

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Although the renewable energy transition will ultimately reduce the need for continuous extraction, it is imperative to ensure that the metals mined for this purpose are sourced responsibly.

The pivotal role of copper

Among the critical minerals, copper stands out due to its extensive use and unique conductive properties, making it indispensable for electrification technologies. The forecasted annual demand for copper is expected to rise from the current 25 million tonnes to 55.1 million tonnes by 2050 under a 1.5°C climate scenario. To meet this demand and mitigate the severe impacts of the climate crisis, new sources of copper will be essential.

Geographic distribution and future supply

The required volumes of many critical minerals, including copper, are found in well-distributed terrestrial reserves. Copper reserves, for instance, are spread across countries such as Chile (23.6%), Peru (10%), the Democratic Republic of Congo (10%), China (8.6%), and the United States (5.9%). In the short term, these nations will continue to be the primary suppliers of copper and other key metals, as establishing new mining operations often takes over a decade.

However, processing capacity can be expanded more quickly and diversified geographically. The United States and the European Union are launching new initiatives to develop domestic mining operations and are forming strategic partnerships to bolster new supply chains.

Challenges and environmental impact of mining

Mining can have significant environmental impacts, including land disruption, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem damage. The extraction process requires substantial water use and can produce harmful waste known as tailings. In some instances, catastrophic events like the tailings dam failures at Samarco in 2015 and Brumadinho in 2019, both in Brazil, have caused severe damage to human and environmental health.

Moreover, mining is an inherently regional activity. Most mining operations are situated within or near Indigenous territories or local communities, with over 50% of the metals required for the renewable energy transition located on or near Indigenous lands. Ensuring health and safety, providing employment opportunities, and protecting the rights of local and Indigenous communities are crucial. Failure to address these concerns can lead to significant opposition from affected communities, as evidenced by the shutdown of the Cobre Panama copper mine in November 2023 following protests by environmentalists, students, Indigenous groups, and labor activists.

Responsible mining practices

To mitigate the negative impacts of mining, responsible practices are essential. This starts with robust internal management systems, strong corporate governance, and effective processes for dialogue and grievance resolution. Implementing and adhering to recognized standards is another critical step towards responsible mining.

Several standards currently guide responsible mining practices. The Mining Association of Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) program addresses issues such as biodiversity, climate change, crisis management, mine closure, and relations with Indigenous and local communities. The Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) is another standard being implemented in South America and Africa, developed by a multi-stakeholder board. Additionally, the CopperMark provides an independent assurance framework promoting responsible practices across the copper, molybdenum, nickel, and zinc value chains.

While these standards vary in their specifics, they share a common goal of improving mining practices worldwide. Transparency and reporting are fundamental to responsible mining, and new guidelines, such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) standard for mining, aim to facilitate this process.

Towards a sustainable future

End users of metals can also contribute to responsible mining by increasing supply chain transparency and promoting sustainable practices. Companies are encouraged to increase the use of recycled materials and support research and development of innovative solutions. Organizations such as Ørsted and Teck are actively engaging across sectors and parts of the value chain to enhance responsible mining practices.

As we transition to a renewable energy future, ensuring the responsible sourcing of critical minerals is paramount. By prioritizing sustainability and ethical practices in mining, we can build a green energy future that is not only efficient and effective but also equitable and environmentally sound.

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