The race for so-called green energy has spawned another race, one for the minerals needed to make the devices such as solar panels and batteries that produce, store and transmit that energy. A hitherto largely unchallenged economic idea—that we will always have supplies of everything we need at the time we need it at prices we can afford—is in the process of being tested.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world will need to produce six times more of these critical metals than we are producing now to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, a target widely held out as an essential goal for avoiding catastrophic effects from climate change. The need for lithium—the key component in lithium batteries that are prized for light weight and the ability to charge quickly—will grow 70 times over the next 20 years, the IEA predicts.
One wonders what the price trajectories of the minerals IEA mentions will look like in the coming years. The long-term charts are concerning for nickel, lithium, cobalt and others since this appears to be just the beginning of the run-up.
The world is experiencing shortages already of many key commodities and manufactured items (such as computer chips). This is, in part, due to lack of investment over the last decade after a general slump in commodity prices following the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 and a broad moderation in worldwide economic growth. Certainly, we can expect increased investment in these critical metals. But will it be sufficient to match our dreams for a green technology future?
I cite again an exchange I had way back in 2009 with someone in the computer industry who contended that because indium and gallium—two metals critical to the production of flat-screen technology and solar panels—were already in billions of consumer devices, they must be in plentiful supply. His argument boiled down to this: The people who run the computer industry are really smart and would not have put the industry on a collision course with a scarcity of key resources. Therefore, continuous exponential growth in demand for these and other metals would not be a problem.
But I imagined a much different world, one in which public officials and corporate leaders acted heedlessly based almost solely on the exigencies of the moment. I wrote at the time that the kind of denialism on display with this computer professional was perhaps the hardest to cut through: “If one admits this kind of incompetence is possible, then it implies that we could be hitting limits all over the place which have not been foreseen by corporate and government planners. That would mean a complete readjustment of one’s world view and a concentrated dose of fear and uncertainty to boot.”
The alarm sounded by the IEA last week is not the first since my 2009 piece. But the alarms are coming more frequently. Just last December I wrote about a report from the European Commission touching on the same issue. Usually, when high government officials start talking publicly about critical shortages, the world is already far along into the shortage. That’s when such problems get moved from the back burner—if they are on any burner at all—to the front burner because they are now visible and officials are forced to acknowledge them.
Acknowledgement is not resolution, however. Part of the difficulty in solving this emerging shortage is that the mining required to solve it is unspeakably polluting. This cements my belief that the chief source of problems is solutions to other problems. We have gotten ourselves into such loops because we believe that technology itself equals solutions rather than simply more and different problems. To get out of that loop we would need to go beyond technology to rethinking our entire way of life.
I don’t expect the European Commission or the IEA to do that. But the emerging shortage of these critical minerals forces us all at least to confront the possibility that technology will not preserve our precious climate all by itself.
Photo: Lemon battery experiment. ChristianSW (2016). Via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lemon_battery_experiment.JPG
(A simple battery can be made with a lemon, a copper wire and a zinc nail. https://youtu.be/e5maAe6iVkQ)