How the Energy Transition Could Reduce Mining Dominance

The global energy transition has typically been associated with an increase in the demand for metals, particularly the so-called “rare earth metals”. However, counterintuitively, Dutch researchers from the universities of Leiden and Delft have found that the energy transition may lead to a decrease in the dominance of extractive industries, such as metallurgical mining. Their findings are based on improvements in recycling the stockpile of metals accumulated over the past decade and take into account advancements in substitution technologies.

Addressing Concerns about Extractive Industries

Worries about environmental impact and human rights issues related to extractive industries have long plagued discussions surrounding renewable energy sources and electrification. Fueling these concerns are forecasts predicting a surge in the extraction of metals necessary for the transition, such as rare earth metals, which are used in wind turbines, solar panels, high-voltage line transport batteries, and electric cars.

However, the recent study by Dutch researchers offers an alternative outlook for the future. They argue that once coal extraction has disappeared, only metallurgical mining dominance will remain, at a much smaller scale than that of coal and lower than previous forecasts. This is because their calculations consider the potential growth in recycling rates and developments in substitution technologies.

Recycling Rates and the Reduction of Metal Demand

  • The Dutch study takes into account the improvements in recycling the stockpile of metals accumulated over the past decade. According to the researchers, this stockpile should continue to grow until 2040.
  • This is in contrast with earlier projections, such as those by the World Bank from 2020 and the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2021 report, which built their scenarios on a 2017 study about “the role of metals in a low-carbon future”. These projections did not incorporate advancements in recycling technology.

The researchers’ optimistic outlook thus stems from the belief that as recycling rates improve, the demand for new metal extraction will decrease. This would ultimately lead to a reduction in the dominance and environmental impact of extractive industries.

Substitution Technologies: Enabling Reduced Consumption

Beyond recycling, substitution technologies in production, transportation storage, and electricity consumption also have the potential to significantly reduce mining dominance by lessening the need for metals. Unfortunately, the Dutch study bases its evaluation of supply-demand balance on outdated IEA metal demand assumptions. To fully embrace the potential of reduced consumption driven by substitution technologies, an updated approach that takes these factors into account is needed.

A Future with Less Mining Dominance

If recycling rates and substitution technologies continue to progress, it seems plausible that a future with less mining dominance may emerge. This could potentially reduce the destructive consequences currently associated with extractive industries and counter fears of scarcity surrounding rare earth metals and other crucial resources required for the energy transition.

In conclusion, the energy transition and the continued development of recycling and substitution technologies can pave the way for a more sustainable future with minimized mining activity. By reducing our reliance on newly extracted materials, we can lessen the pressure on both the environment and human rights within the extractive sectors. As global leaders continue to champion renewable energy sources and electrification, ensuring these developments are grounded in sustainable practices is imperative to create a truly green future.