We’ll need hundreds of new critical metals mines to decarbonize
Over the past few years, Nevada has become a battleground between mining companies and environmentalists over the development of the state’s lithium deposits, the largest known in the United States. The proposed mines would produce millions of tons of lithium for batteries that will benefit the climate in the long term by deploying more electric vehicles (EVs), but, according to opponents, would come at the expense of fragile local ecosystems, endangered species and sacred Indigenous lands.
This same battleground is being replicated all over the world, as countries gear up to transition cars from gasoline to electricity.
Lithium is one of the critical metals essential for clean energy technologies, along with cobalt and nickel for EV batteries, rare earth elements for wind turbines, and silicon and gallium for solar panels. According to projections by the International Energy Agency, reaching global net zero emissions by 2050 will require expanding the production of energy-relevant metals from 7 million tons per year to 42 million by 2040 — a whopping sixfold increase. In particular, demand for lithium is expected to grow by as much as 40 times over 2020 levels as EV sales in China and the United States take off in the post-2025 period.
Surging demand and dizzying price hikes have raised concerns that inadequate metal and mineral supplies may impede the clean energy transition. Given the urgency of reducing fossil fuel use, the science and policy worlds must solve two main challenges: how to ensure the availability and affordability of critical metals in the quantities needed, and how to manage the environmental impacts related to mining and processing them. The latter issue is likely to be much trickier than the former.
Critical minerals are commodities that follow the rules of supply and demand. When demand increases, prices rise, providing incentives to find and produce more of whatever mineral is in short supply. Twenty years ago, predictions of uranium shortages sent prices for raw uranium soaring, which in turn stimulated increased prospecting and discovery of new uranium ore deposits. More recently, impending shortages of rare earth elements have triggered a global stampede to find new supplies — which, given recent finds, seem to be more prevalent than previously thought. In almost every case, the growth rate in reserves has kept up with demand and predictions of scarcity have proved to be overly pessimistic.
Admittedly, time lags and geopolitics may slow, but not derail, the rate of new finds and production. Take the example of lithium — the most critical component for today’s batteries. Fueled by explosive growth in the EV market, the price of lithium has increased 1,100 percent in the past two years, a trend that is likely to accelerate because of existing policy incentives and increasing EV technology competitiveness. Long lead times for new mines — three years or more — will keep lithium supplies tight and prices high in the short term, but high prices will attract widespread investment in exploration, extraction and distribution. As a result, we predict that by 2025 lithium supplies will outpace demand and prices will plummet, and similar fluctuations in lithium, cobalt and nickel prices and availability will recur throughout the next decades.
We are already seeing this dynamic at play with increased interest in lithium mining in Nevada and elsewhere. But as companies search for reserves to develop, they will continue to run up against opposition founded on legitimate environmental concerns. Mining and refining are difficult, dirty operations that often have devastating impacts on the surrounding environment. On the other hand, hundreds of new mines will be needed if the world is to meet its decarbonization targets.
In our opinion, the primary hurdle to meeting the demand for batteries will not be raw material availability but whether governments and industries can manage the environmental impacts of mining on a time schedule that will be compressed into 25-40 years. Doing so will require substantial investment in prevention of toxic waste leakages from mining, improved options to protect the local ecology, and development of better land reclamation techniques. It will mean investing in safer and cleaner ways to transport and refine minerals. Reforming and streamlining siting processes will help, but without significant improvements to minimize environmental degradation, such reforms will fall short.
Proactively addressing and assuaging public objections to new mines will be essential to securing access to critical metals.
Henry Lee is director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program (ENRP) at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Xin Sun is a predoctoral research fellow with ENRP and a Ph.D. candidate at Tsinghua University’s School of Vehicle and Mobility.