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The Carbon Emissions of Producing Energy Transition Metals: Charted

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Chart of carbon emissions produced by mining and processing energy transition metals

Visualizing the Carbon Footprint of Metals Mining

Metals are the backbone of clean energy infrastructure and technologies, but the mining and processing of energy transition metals also generates significant carbon emissions.

From the lithium and cobalt needed for electric vehicle batteries to the rare earth metals which power wind turbines, procuring all of these metals comes at a cost to the environment.

This graphic uses data from a KU Leuven report to visualize the carbon emissions from the mining and processing of various energy transition metals.

The Carbon Cost of Mining Clean Energy Metals

Metals mining and processing are highly energy-intensive operations, with the sector accounting for approximately 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. While steel production makes up a large part of mining and metal emissions on the global scale (7%), other metals also generate millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent each year.

Nickel, dysprosium, and cobalt are the three metals which generate the most CO2, with nickel having a high variability depending on the deposit type and end product.

Dysprosium is an essential rare earth metal that is used in neodymium-based magnets found in wind turbines and electric vehicles. Nickel is primarily used in the production of stainless steel, but it is also essential alongside cobalt for the production of nickel-cobalt-aluminum and nickel-manganese=cobalt cathodes for EV batteries.

As a result, the demand for these metals is expected to increase significantly over the next three decades:

MetalEnergy Transition Demand by 2030Energy Transition Demand by 2050
Aluminum15-22 Mt25-42 Mt
Copper5.5-8 Mt9-15 Mt
Zinc0.7-1.5 Mt1.5-2.7 Mt
Lithium1,900-3,000 kt3,700-8,000 kt
Nickel1,000-1,800 kt1,800-4,000 kt
Silicon650-1,250 kt1,000-1,700 kt
Cobalt130-210 kt270-600 kt
Neodymium65-75 kt140-170 kt
Praseodymium20-22 kt45-55 kt
Dysprosium 2.3-4 kt3.5-7 kt

Source: KU Leuven
Amounts in metric tonnes
Mt = million metric tonnes, kt = thousand metric tonnes

While electric vehicles decarbonize automotive emissions, producing the low estimates of the nickel and cobalt needed for the global energy transition (one million tonnes of nickel and 130,000 tonnes of cobalt) would result in almost 25 million tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Understanding Nickel and Lithium’s Variability in CO2 Emissions

Mining is a highly energy and carbon-intensive process due to the large amounts of heavy machinery and equipment required to extract ore from the ground. However, it’s the processing stages of smelting and refining that typically generate the most carbon emissions.

As seen with lithium and nickel on the chart, these emissions can vary greatly depending on the deposit type and processing methods used to make different end products.

  • Compared to nickel sulfide projects, nickel laterite projects can require between 2.5-6x more energy.
  • Along with this, producing high-purity class 1 nickel metal emits around 13 kg of CO2 per kg of nickel, while ferronickel (class 2 nickel) emits about 45 kg of CO2 per kilogram of nickel content.

Similarly, lithium production emissions also vary depending on their deposit type and end product.

  • Generally, lithium brine projects generate about one-third of the CO2 emissions of a spodumene project.
  • Along with this, whether brine or spodumene, producing lithium hydroxide as the end product rather than lithium carbonate produces almost double the emissions.

While there’s plenty of variability, even the lower end of the ranges for nickel and lithium production results in large amounts of carbon emissions.

Mining’s Additional Environmental Costs

Along with carbon emissions from mining and processing operations, these projects have additional tolls on the environment.

Open pit mines dig up vast areas of land spanning multiple kilometers, releasing large amounts of dust and asbestos-like minerals. Along with this, mineral processing operations consume large amounts of water, and resulting mine tailings pose various risks if not stored and disposed of properly.

Simply put, the energy transition will require large amounts of land, energy, and water for the carbon-intensive process of metals mining and refining.

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Energy Shift

Visualizing Global Energy Production in 2023

Fossil fuels accounted for 81% of the energy mix.

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Pie chart showing energy production by source in 2023.

Visualizing Global Energy Production in 2023

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

Global primary energy consumption reached a new record of 620 exajoules (EJ) for the second consecutive year in 2023, up from 607 exajoules in 2022.

This graphic shows the sources of energy used globally in 2023, measured in exajoules. Data is from the 2024 Statistical Review of World Energy by the Energy Institute, released in June 2024.

Fossil Fuels Accounted for 81% of the Energy Mix

Despite efforts to decarbonize the economy, fossil fuels still accounted for over 80% of the global energy mix in 2023.

Oil was responsible for 32% of the energy consumed around the world, followed by coal (26%) and then natural gas (23%).

Energy SourceConsumption in exajoulePercentage (%)Fossil Fuel
Oil19632%Yes
Coal16426%Yes
Natural Gas14423%Yes
Hydro-electric406%No
Nuclear Energy254%No
Other Renewables518%No
Total620100%

The Asia-Pacific region was responsible for nearly 80% of global coal output, with significant contributions from Australia, China, India, and Indonesia.

Global coal consumption also continued to rise, exceeding 164 EJ for the first time ever.

China remains the largest consumer of coal, accounting for 56% of the world’s total consumption. However, in 2023, India’s coal consumption exceeded the combined total of Europe and North America for the first time.

Oil consumption, in particular, rebounded strongly last year compared to 2022, largely due to China relaxing its zero-COVID lockdown policies.

Renewables’ share of total primary energy consumption reached 14.6%, an increase of 0.4% over the previous year. Together with nuclear, they represented roughly 19% of total primary energy consumption.

Renewables like solar and wind accounted for 8% of the energy generated in 2023, followed by hydroelectric (6%) and nuclear (4%).

Editor’s Note: The graphic was updated on July 16, 2024, to correct an error in the fossil fuel values.

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Energy Shift

Visualized: The Growth of Clean Energy Stocks

Visual Capitalist partnered with EnergyX to analyze five major clean energy stocks and explore the factors driving this growth.

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This line chart shows the growth of clean energy stocks and hints at their cumulative five-year returns.

The Growth of Clean Energy Stocks

Over the last few years, energy investment trends have shifted from fossil fuels to renewable and sustainable energy sources. Long-term energy investors now see significant returns from clean energy stocks, especially compared to those invested in fossil fuels alone.

For this graphic, Visual Capitalist has collaborated with EnergyX to examine the rise of clean energy stocks and gain a deeper understanding of the factors driving this growth.

Sustainable Energy Stock Performance

In 2023, the IEA reported that 62% of all energy investment went toward sustainable sources. As the world embraces sustainable energy and technologies like EVs, it’s no surprise that clean energy companies provide solid returns for their investors over long periods.

Taking the top-five clean energy stocks by market cap (as of April 2024) and charting their five-year cumulative returns, it is clear that investments in clean energy are growing:

CompanyPrice: 01/04/2019Price: 12/29/20245-Year-Return %
First Solar, Inc.$46.32$172.28272%
Enphase Energy, Inc.$5.08$132.142,501%
Consolidated Edison, Inc.$76.55$90.9719%
NextEra Energy, Inc.$43.13$60.7441%
Brookfield Renewable Partners$14.78$26.2878%

promotional graphic with a button and wheel that promotes the EnergyX investment site

But how does this compare to the performance of fossil fuel stocks?

When comparing the performance of the S&P Global Oil Index and the S&P Clean Energy Index between 2019 and 2023, we see that the former returned 15%, whereas the latter returned an impressive 41%. This trend demonstrates the potential for clean energy stocks to yield significant returns on an industry level, sparking optimism and excitement for potential investors.

A Shift In Returns

With global investment trends moving away from traditional, non-sustainable sources, the companies that could shape the energy transition provide investors with alternative opportunities and avenues for growth.

One such company is EnergyX. The lithium technology company has patented a groundbreaking technology that can improve lithium extraction rates by an incredible 300%, and its stock price has grown tenfold since its first offering in 2021.

promotional graphic that promotes the EnergyX investment site
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