While energy from renewable sources such as solar and wind is nearly infinite, the resources we need to capture it are not. Solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and power cables all contain metals. Their various properties, including toughness and conductivity, make metals uniquely suitable for renewable energy technologies. But first they must be extracted from ores that are dug up from the ground. Most mining is a dirty business. Moreover, some metals are rare or becoming depleted.

The more energy we harvest from the skies above our heads, the deeper we will have to dig for the metals beneath our feet. Because of its decentralised nature, a renewable energy system requires far larger quantities of metals than a fossil energy system. It takes a whole farm of wind turbines to replace one coal-fired power station. And since the sun and wind are intermittent energy sources, part of the energy produced needs to be stored for later use. This storage also requires metals, both for batteries and for electrolysers which convert electricity into hydrogen. The strengthening of power grids and the shift to electric mobility are further pushing up the demand for metals.

solar panel

350,000 Eiffel Towers

According to the World Bank,
keeping global warming well
below 2 degrees Celsius will
require 3.5 billion tonnes of
metals and other minerals
for the worldwide deployment
of wind, solar, and geothermal
power, as well as for energy
storage. (1) This is 350,000
times the weight of the Eiffel
Tower.

Exponential growth

The climate crisis leaves us no choice but to make a swift transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, while saving as much energy as we can. Solar and wind power have already entered the phase of exponential growth, as have electric vehicles and the batteries that power them. This translates into a rapidly growing demand for so-called 'energy metals'. According to the European Commission, by 2030, the European Union (EU) will need up to 18 times more lithium and 5 times more cobalt than its total current consumption, to cover electric car batteries and energy storage alone. By 2050, this is forecast to increase to almost 60 times more lithium and 15 times more cobalt. (2)

Alongside the energy transition, the digital transition is a priority for the EU. It also relies on metals. Many digital innovations enhance our quality of life. Teleworking and videoconferencing have proven particularly useful during the coronavirus pandemic. Sensors, data, and algorithms allow a more sustainable use of resources, including energy and materials. But, in turn, all digital technologies require energy and materials. Despite the ethereal metaphor of ‘the cloud’, the data economy has a heavy material footprint, which includes a wide array of metals. Gains in the energy and material efficiency of devices and networks are outpaced by the exponential growth of data, which doubles every two to three years. (3)

The cleantech and digital sectors are competing for the same metals. European demand for rare earths, which are used in electric cars and wind turbines but also in digital devices (4), could rise tenfold by 2050. (5)

Responsible sourcing

Since the development of technologies and markets is hard to predict, long-term demand forecasts for specific metals are uncertain. It is clear, however, that a significant portion of the metals supply will come from outside Europe. For most metals, the EU is between 75 and 100 per cent dependent on imports. This creates risks for Europe’s security of supply and for its strategic autonomy. It also raises the issue of climate justice, given that the greatest burdens of metal mining fall on the Global South. Metals can therefore be seen as the Achilles heel of the energy and digital transitions.

Should we rethink our use of joules and bytes to save metals? How do we stop valuable metals ending up as waste? Can we procure the metals we really need in a way that is equitable for both developing countries and future generations? This dossier looks at the metals quandary from various ethical and political angles. It concludes with an Agenda for Action that charts a course towards a responsible sourcing of metals for a green and digital Europe.

The Agenda for Action was developed through a series of transnational webinars and expert meetings, as well as an online consultation, in 2021. The drafters of the Agenda would like to express their gratitude to the hundreds of experts, politicians, and activists from all over Europe and the Global South who took part in these lively discussions. They provided an abundance of ideas for tackling metals scarcity.

The online version of the Agenda for Action is still being updated. Therefore, you are welcome to leave your comments.

Leave your comments

Footnotes

Logo Green European Foundation

Green European Foundation (GEF)

This project is organised by the Green European Foundation with the support of Wetenschappelijk Bureau GroenLinks (NL), Fundacja Strefa Zieleni (PL), Transición Verde (ES), Etopia (BE), Institut Aktivního Občanství (CZ), the Green Economics Institute (UK), and Visio (FI), and with the financial support of the European Parliament to the Green European Foundation.

Reacties

03 mei 21

Jean LECOUVET

Consigne sur les canettes (Deposit on beverage cans)

Alors que pour recycler l'aluminum on ne consomme que 5 % de l'énergie consommée pour produire le même alu à partir de bauxite, alors que la transition énergétique a besoin de câbles en alu dans les lignes à haute tension et autre, on n'a pas de consigne généralisée des canettes en Europe. Pourquoi pas ?
https://www.emballagesmagazine.com/tous-secteurs/consigne-tomra-plaide-pour-le-pragmatisme.51181

03 mei 21

Richard Wouters

Deposit on beverage cans

@Jean: C'est un point juste. We will take on board your suggestion in section 9, the Agenda for Action (forthcoming).

30 mei 21

Michael J. Ogh…

Kudos

Dear Richard and colleagues – well done on this! I've yet to read such a concise, holistic, and relevant analysis of the metals problem. I appreciate the data you incorporate, and I think you're really on point with the suggestions and recommendations. One thing I often stress is that consumers don't typically have many choices when it comes to more sustainable options. Thus, it's critical to ensure that policy and regulatory measures help to create an environment where consumers do have better choices. Having said that, consumer behaviour (while important) is a drop in the bucket compared to industrial and commercial activity. Regardless, I think you all have done a fantastic job, and I look forward to collaborating more with you on this subject.

31 mei 21

Richard Wouters

Consumers, governments, companies

@Michael Thanks. The Agenda for Action (section 9, forthcoming) will make it clear that we address policy makers and companies rather than consumers.

01 juni 21

Floriske

Nuclear power

Very interesting and necessary project!
Apart from responsible management of resources, why not also consider nuclear power?
Because of the power density, you’d need much less resources than fossil fuels, let alone renewables.
It’s all about a balanced mix.

01 juni 21

Richard Wouters

Nuclear power

@Floriske: Nuclear power depends on an uninterrupted supply of a finite, imported metal (uranium) and produces dangerous, radioactive waste that thousands of generations after us will have to deal with. As such, nuclear energy doesn't fit in well with the circular and zero-waste Europe that the European Parliament and the European Commission are striving for.
Moreover, nuclear will have a hard time competing with renewables, since the latter's marginal costs are close to zero. (Sun and wind are free 'fuels'.)
Finally, nuclear energy doesn't decrease the metals demand of electric vehicles. These vehicles need a lot of scarce metals for storage of electricity (batteries) and the conversion of electricity into motion (motors). I don't think we will see vehicles powered by onboard nuclear reactors anytime soon. Since private electric cars represent a large chunk of Europe's projected demand for scarce metals, rethinking our mobility - as argued in section 8 - is probably the best way to save metals.

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