Earthworks supports the transition to a 100% renewable energy economy—one that no longer depends on fossil fuels—an essential shift, if we are to avert catastrophic climate change. Solar, wind power and battery technologies are competitive and growing rapidly, while their costs continue to fall. Yet, as with any transition, we must prepare for, and ensure against, unintended consequences.
Renewable energy and battery production rely on minerals such as cobalt, nickel, lithium and copper. Research by the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures (UTS-ISF) shows that demand for these minerals is skyrocketing.
Mineral extraction already brings devastating harm to people and the environment, fueling human rights violations, water pollution and wildlife and forest destruction. Metals mining is the leading industrial polluter in the United States, and contributes 10% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, according to the UN Environment Programme. Rising minerals demand means human and environmental costs of mineral extraction are likely to rise steeply as well.
Battery metals are of greatest concern
Lithium, cobalt and nickel–key minerals used to make the lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles (EVs)–are of principal concern, based on UTS-ISF research. In a 100% renewable energy future, demand could reach 136% of the documented nickel deposits that are economically feasible to extract, 280% for lithium and 426% for cobalt.
The skyrocketing demand for these minerals is driving the expansion of mining in geographic “hotspots” throughout the world – and even to the depths of the ocean – with disproportionately negative impacts in the Global South.
We can accelerate the transition to a sustainable materials economy by ensuring that the minerals in electric vehicle batteries are sourced responsibly. An April 2021 report prepared for Earthworks by UTS-ISF demonstrates the significant potential for recycling to offset demand for newly mined metals for electric vehicle batteries. According to the research, effectively recycling end-of-life batteries could reduce global EV mineral demand 55% for newly mined copper, 25% for lithium and 35% for cobalt and nickel by 2040.
To avoid the mistakes of the past, a responsible materials transition must accompany the renewable energy transition. We have an opportunity, if we act now, to ensure that our emerging clean energy system moves away from its dependence on dirty mining. As we embrace clean energy technologies in pursuit of our climate goals, we must protect community health, water, human rights and the environment. Making clean energy clean, just & equitable will require a concerted commitment to:
Accelerating these necessary shifts in the design, sourcing, takeback and recirculation of products, materials and services will allow societies to obtain the benefits of minerals without imposing the high costs of their extraction.
We believe in humanity’s boundless capacity for innovation. Renewable energy innovation must be accompanied by innovation in the way we extract and use minerals. Only then will clean energy be truly clean. We hope you will join us and our allies to collaboratively identify and pursue opportunities to accelerate the transition to a truly clean energy future.
The April 2021 UTS-ISF report Reducing New Mining for Electric Vehicle Battery Minerals.
The March 2021 Earthworks report Recharge Responsibly: The environmental and social footprint of mining cobalt, lithium, and nickel for electric vehicle batteries.
The April 2019 UTS-ISF report Responsible Minerals Sourcing for Renewable Energy.
Earthworks’ Making Clean Energy Clean, Just & Equitable Position Statement: