To meet the goals outlined by the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries need to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. While a total shift to renewable energy sources could prevent climate change disasters, it will have other environmental impacts, too. According to a 2019 Earthworks report, by 2050 the demand for renewable energy could lead to a noticeable metal shortage.
Metals like copper, cobalt, lithium, nickel, neodymium, silver and tellurium are all necessary for renewable energy technologies. Nearly all electronics use copper because of its conducting properties. Wind turbines need neodymium for their powerful magnets. Cobalt and lithium are routinely used in batteries for electric vehicles. But the supply of these metals is currently limited; Only a handful of countries have control over the largest supplies, and globally, mining operations are downsizing, leading to a looming metal shortage.
The Earthworks report, authored by the Institute for Sustainable Futures, evaluates metal supply and the demand for renewable energy resources in a scenario that keeps the Earth from warming 1.5 degrees Celsius. It projects that by 2050, demand for cobalt, lithium, and nickel could well exceed reserves for these materials. Vice reported that to meet the emission reduction targets under the Paris Agreement, global production of rare earth minerals will need to grow twelvefold by 2050 to meet renewable energy demands.
Humanity will have to balance the demand for renewable energy with the environmental impacts of mining.
A paper in Nature from 2017 came to similar conclusions. The authors predicted that in the next two to three decades, mineral industries will struggle to meet the demand for metals like copper. Primary production will peak around midcentury and then industries will increasingly rely on secondary sources of copper, like recycling.
Both of these reports insist that recycling these metals will be crucial going forward. But recycling the necessary metals has not been a large operation. For critical metals, recycling rates are below one percent. Additionally, much of the supply is unavailable for recycling, locked away in devices, like wind turbines and solar panels, currently in use. Once the present generation of renewable energy technology reaches the end of its lifespan, companies will need to develop programs that recycle high rates of these materials. But even higher rates of recycling are unlikely to be a complete fix for the metal shortage, according to the Earthworks report.
Another solution is expanding mining operations. The majority of these technologically important metals are mined by just a handful of countries. China, for example, controls most neodymium mining and processing operations. In 2018, the Democratic Republic of Congo produced 70% of the world's cobalt.
But because of the significant environmental toll, mining operations have become unpopular. They're especially contentious among indigenous communities. In Alaska, indigenous communities have been fighting to prevent copper and gold mining operations in Bristol Bay, home of the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery. But the Trump administration is moving toward greenlighting mining operations, citing the demand for copper and a potential metal shortage. Similar fights are happening in other countries, too.
Around the world mining operations have both environmental and social consequences.
To address the metal shortage, both the Nature and Earthworks reports recommend new, responsibly managed mining operations to minimize negative environmental and social consequences. Neither of the reports, however, outlines what these responsible practices might look like. Until renewable energy technologies address the need for more sustainable designs and practices, mining will likely be a large part of short-term solutions to the metal shortage. As Earthworks' mining director Payal Sampat told Grist, "We're not going to tech fix our way out of this." Companies and governments will need to work together to sustainably manage the metal supply while meeting the demands for renewable energy.