Why low-car­bon econ­omy drives need for rare earths

The Korea Times - - FOREIGN ENTERPRISE - (In­sid­eSources.com/Tri­bune News)

In the future, the world may be low car­bon, but it likely won’t be low-metal. That is the con­clu­sion reached by a re­cent study by the World Bank, which an­a­lyzed the de­mand that growth in clean and re­new­able en­ergy tech­nol­ogy would place on world­wide sup­plies of cer­tain min­er­als and rare-earth met­als. The re­port at­tempts to fill in a gap in pre­vi­ous anal­y­sis of cli­mate change and global warm­ing sce­nar­ios, which it ad­mits “have typ­i­cally paid scant at­ten­tion to the metal im­pli­ca­tions nec­es­sary to re­al­ize a low/zero car­bon future.” What the World Bank found is that build­ing up clean en­ergy tech­nol­ogy to the lev­els re­quired un­der the Paris Cli­mate Agree­ment would likely take huge stores of a va­ri­ety of rare-earth met­als and other raw ma­te­ri­als.

“As part of the tran­si­tion to a low car­bon econ­omy, we are al­ready see­ing a re­mark­able growth in re­new­able en­ergy tech­nolo­gies, now ac­count­ing for about 17 per­cent of global en­ergy con­sump­tion,” writes Ric­cardo Puliti, head of the En­ergy and Ex­trac­tives Prac­tice Group at the World Bank. He is op­ti­mistic that the trend will con­tinue. De­mand for clean tech­nol­ogy still has not reached the lev­els re­quired un­der the agree­ment, how­ever, and it is un­clear what the cost of a global switch would be.

For the study, the World Bank de­vel­oped com­modi­ties de­mand pro­jec­tions through 2050. These pro­jec­tions at­tempted to es­ti­mate how tech­no­log­i­cal im­prove­ments in wind, so­lar, and en­ergy stor­age bat­ter­ies would make re­new­able en­ergy sources more at­trac­tive in the near future. At the same time, the study ac­knowl­edges that sup­plies of rare-earth met­als will nec­es­sar­ily limit the growth rate of clean en­ergy tech­nol­ogy.

The study ex­am­ined pro­jec­tions for a dozen dif­fer­ent met­als, rang­ing from the rel­a­tively com­mon­place like iron, steel, and alu­minum to the more rare in­dium, molyb­de­num, and lithium. All are ma­te­ri­als used in the con­struc­tion of so­lar pho­to­voltaics and wind elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tors, as well as en­ergy stor­age tech­nol­ogy.

The World Bank sees the growth of al­ter­na­tive en­ergy tech­nol­ogy, and the cor­re­spond­ing need for sup­plies of rare-earth met­als, as an op­por­tu­nity for re­source-rich, but de­vel­op­ing coun­tries to grow their economies.

“With bet­ter plan­ning, re­source-rich coun­tries can take ad­van­tage of the in­creased de­mand to foster growth and de­vel­op­ment,” said Puliti. “Coun­tries with ca­pac­ity and in­fra­struc­ture to sup­ply the min­er­als and met­als re­quired for cleaner tech­nolo­gies have a unique op­por­tu­nity to grow their economies if they de­velop their min­ing sec­tors in a sus­tain­able way.”

By an­a­lyz­ing a broad range of min­er­als and met­als needed for clean en­ergy pro­duc­tion, the study shows that fears about Chi­nese dom­i­na­tion of rare-earth metal pro­duc­tion is far from uni­ver­sal. At present, China dom­i­nates the pro­duc­tion of many raw ma­te­ri­als nec­es­sary to pro­duce bat­ter­ies, so­lar pan­els, and wind gen­er­a­tors. How­ever, China’s nat­u­ral re­sources do not in­clude all nec­es­sary ma­te­ri­als. It has no do­mes­tic plat­inum or pal­la­dium pro­duc­tion, for ex­am­ple, two el­e­ments used in cat­alytic con­vert­ers.

Although the study ac­knowl­edges that China has a “global dom­i­nance” specif­i­cally in sup­plies of rare-earth met­als, it points out that growth in al­ter­na­tive en­ergy tech­nol­ogy will pro­duce global op­por­tu­ni­ties for other min­eral ex­trac­tion in a va­ri­ety of re­gions, par­tic­u­larly in South and Cen­tral Amer­ica. In part, this re­flects how little is known about the world­wide dis­tri­bu­tion of rare-earth met­als. Most de­vel­op­ing na­tions have not per­formed the nec- es­sary ge­o­logic sur­veys to dis­cover these met­als, which are of­ten found mixed in with other ma­te­ri­als.

“It is strik­ing that aside from China, Brazil, India, and Malaysia there are no recorded pro­duc­tion, re­serve, or re­source data for rare-earth met­als avail­able from any de­vel­op­ing coun­try re­gions. Although these crit­i­cal met­als can be found in these ar­eas, no con­certed ef­forts have been un­der­taken to ac­cu­rately map their ex­is­tence,” the re­port found.

How­ever, even these pre­dic­tions must be taken with a de­cent dose of skep­ti­cism. Although the study pro­vides sev­eral dif­fer­ent pos­si­bil­i­ties for the tech­nol­ogy needed to sharply re­duce car­bon emis­sions in the future, the re­searchers ac­knowl­edge that reach­ing the am­bi­tious 2050 goals re­lies on sig­nif­i­cant changes to both en­ergy trans­mis­sion and stor­age tech­nolo­gies. Reach­ing the am­bi­tious goals of the Paris Cli­mate Ac­cords will re­quire al­most un­fore­seen lev­els of tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment and even then will only slow warm­ing, rather than halt it.

“It is clear that meet­ing the Paris cli­mate tar­get of not ex­ceed­ing 2 de­grees Cel­sius (2 ℃) (and mak­ing best ef­forts to reach 1.5℃) global warm­ing over this cen­tury will re­quire a rad­i­cal (that is, to the root) re­struc­tur­ing of en­ergy sup­ply and trans­mis­sion sys­tems glob­ally,” the re­searchers found. At the same time, even these rel­a­tively mod­est gains will come at sub­stan­tial ma­te­ri­als costs.

“Fur­ther­more, the tech­nolo­gies as­sumed to pop­u­late the clean en­ergy shift (wind, so­lar, hy­dro­gen and elec­tric­ity sys­tems) are in fact sig­nif­i­cantly MORE ma­te­rial in­ten­sive in their com­po­si­tion than cur­rent tra­di­tional fos­sil-fuel-based en­ergy sup­ply sys­tems,” the re­port con­tin­ued.

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