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:
|Metal||Energy Transition Demand by 2030||Energy Transition Demand by 2050|
|Aluminum||15-22 Mt||25-42 Mt|
|Copper||5.5-8 Mt||9-15 Mt|
|Zinc||0.7-1.5 Mt||1.5-2.7 Mt|
|Lithium||1,900-3,000 kt||3,700-8,000 kt|
|Nickel||1,000-1,800 kt||1,800-4,000 kt|
|Silicon||650-1,250 kt||1,000-1,700 kt|
|Cobalt||130-210 kt||270-600 kt|
|Neodymium||65-75 kt||140-170 kt|
|Praseodymium||20-22 kt||45-55 kt|
|Dysprosium||2.3-4 kt||3.5-7 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.
Ranked: The World’s Biggest Oil Producers
Just three countries—the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Russia—make up the lion’s share of global oil supply. Here are the world’s biggest oil producers.
Ranked: The World’s Biggest Oil Producers
This visualization originally appeared on Visual Capitalist
In 2022 oil prices peaked at more than $100 per barrel, hitting an eight-year high, after a full year of turmoil in the energy markets in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Oil companies doubled their profits and the economies of the biggest oil producers in the world got a major boost.
But which countries are responsible for most of the world’s oil supply? Using data from the Statistical Review of World Energy by the Energy Institute, we’ve visualized and ranked the world’s biggest oil producers.
Ranked: Oil Production By Country, in 2022
The U.S. has been the world’s biggest oil producer since 2018 and continued its dominance in 2022 by producing close to 18 million barrels per day (B/D). This accounted for nearly one-fifth of the world’s oil supply.
Almost three-fourths of the country’s oil production is centered around five states: Texas, New Mexico, North Dakota, Alaska, and Colorado.
We rank the other major oil producers in the world below.
|YoY Change||Share of
|2||🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||12,136||+10.8%||12.9%|
|36||🇸🇸 South Sudan||141||-7.6%||0.2%|
|51||Other Middle East||210||+1.2%||0.2%|
|54||Other Asia Pacific||177||-10.6%||0.2%|
|55||Other S. &|
Behind America’s considerable lead in oil production, Saudi Arabia (ranked 2nd) produced 12 million B/D, accounting for about 13% of global supply.
Russia came in third with 11 million B/D in 2022. Together, these top three oil producing behemoths, along with Canada (4th) and Iraq (5th), make up more than half of the entire world’s oil supply.
Meanwhile, the top 10 oil producers, including those ranked 6th to 10th—China, UAE, Iran, Brazil, and Kuwait—are responsible for more than 70% of the world’s oil production.
Notably, all top 10 oil giants increased their production between 2021–2022, and as a result, global output rose 4.2% year-on-year.
Major Oil Producing Regions in 2022
The Middle East accounts for one-third of global oil production and North America makes up almost another one-third of production. The Commonwealth of Independent States—an organization of post-Soviet Union countries—is another major regional producer of oil, with a 15% share of world production.
|YoY Change||Share of
|South & Central|
What’s starkly apparent in the data however is Europe’s declining share of oil production, now at 3% of the world’s supply. In the last 20 years the EU’s oil output has dropped by more than 50% due to a variety of factors, including stricter environmental regulations and a shift to natural gas.
Another lens to look at regional production is through OPEC members, which control about 35% of the world’s oil output and about 70% of the world’s oil reserves.
When taking into account the group of 10 oil exporting countries OPEC has relationships with, known as OPEC+, the share of oil production increases to more than half of the world’s supply.
Oil’s Big Balancing Act
Since it’s the very lifeblood of the modern economy, the countries that control significant amounts of oil production also reap immense political and economic benefits. Entire regions have been catapulted into prosperity and wars have been fought over the control of the resource.
At the same time, the ongoing effort to pivot to renewable energy is pushing many major oil exporters to diversify their economies. A notable example is Saudi Arabia, whose sovereign wealth fund has invested in companies like Uber and WeWork.
However, the world still needs oil, as it supplies nearly one-third of global energy demand.
What Electricity Sources Power the World?
Coal still leads the charge when it comes to electricity, representing 35% of global power generation.
What Powered the World in 2022?
In 2022, 29,165.2 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity was generated around the world, an increase of 2.3% from the previous year.
In this visualization, we look at data from the latest Statistical Review of World Energy, and ask what powered the world in 2022.
Coal is Still King
Coal still leads the charge when it comes to electricity, representing 35.4% of global power generation in 2022, followed by natural gas at 22.7%, and hydroelectric at 14.9%.
Over three-quarters of the world’s total coal-generated electricity is consumed in just three countries. China is the top user of coal, making up 53.3% of global coal demand, followed by India at 13.6%, and the U.S. at 8.9%.
Burning coal—for electricity, as well as metallurgy and cement production—is the world’s single largest source of CO2 emissions. Nevertheless, its use in electricity generation has actually grown 91.2% since 1997, the year when the first global climate agreement was signed in Kyoto, Japan.
Renewables on the Rise
However, even as non-renewables enjoy their time in the sun, their days could be numbered.
In 2022, renewables, such as wind, solar, and geothermal, represented 14.4% of total electricity generation with an extraordinary annual growth rate of 14.7%, driven by big gains in solar and wind. Non-renewables, by contrast, only managed an anemic 0.4%.
The authors of the Statistical Review do not include hydroelectric in their renewable calculations, even though many others, including the International Energy Agency, consider it a “well-established renewable power technology.”
With hydroelectric moved into the renewable column, together they accounted for over 29.3% of all electricity generated in 2022, with an annual growth rate of 7.4%.
France’s Nuclear Horrible Year
Another big mover in this year’s report was nuclear energy.
In addition to disruptions at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, shutdowns in France’s nuclear fleet to address corrosion found in the safety injection systems of four reactors led to a 4% drop in global use, year-over-year.
The amount of electricity generated by nuclear energy in that country dropped 22% to 294.7 TWh in 2022. As a result, France went from being the world’s biggest exporter of electricity, to a net importer.
Powering the Future
Turning mechanical energy into electrical energy is a relatively straightforward process. Modern power plants are engineering marvels, to be sure, but they still work on the same principle as the very first generator invented by Michael Faraday in 1831.
But how you get the mechanical energy is where things get complicated: coal powered the first industrial revolution, but heated the planet in the process; wind is free and clean, but is unreliable; and nuclear fission reliably generates emission-free electricity, but also creates radioactive waste.
With temperature records being set around the world in the summer, resolving these tensions isn’t just academic and next year’s report could be a crucial test of the world’s commitment to a clean energy future.
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