Yes, we have enough materials to power the world with renewable energy
This study focuses only on electricity generation technologies. It did not include all the materials needed to store and use electricity, such as electric vehicle batteries or grid storage.
Demand for battery materials is expected to increase by 2050. According to a 2020 World Bank study, annual production of graphite, lithium and cobalt will need to increase by more than 450% from 2018 levels to meet projected demand for electric vehicles and grid storage. .
Even when considering battery materials, the bottom line is the same, Wang says: The global supply of materials needed for clean energy infrastructure is sufficient for even the most demanding scenarios.
Getting them off the ground will be the hard part. The increased production of certain materials, especially those required for batteries, creates social and environmental challenges.
“There is a misunderstanding of what needs to happen in the mining industry,” says Demetrios Papathanasiou, the World Bank’s global director for energy and extractive industries.
Take copper for example: around 700 million tons of copper have been mined worldwide since we started mining thousands of years ago. Papathanasiou says we need to produce an additional 700 million tons over the next three decades to meet climate goals. The problem is not the stock: the minerals are there.
The problem is that mining, whether for fossil fuels or renewable energy, can cause significant damage to the environment. For example, in the western United States, proposed mines for materials such as copper and lithium could displace indigenous peoples from their lands and cause pollution.
Then there is the issue of manpower. In some cases, materials are obtained by workers today under unfair or negative working conditions. Despite efforts to ban child labor, it is still common in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In China, polysilicon processing was associated with forced labor.
Figuring out how to get the materials needed to create a clean future without harming people or the environment should be the focus of the transition to renewable energy, says Papathanasiou. “We really have to find solutions to get us the equipment we need on a regular basis, and time is very short.”
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