The ESG Challenges for Transition Metals
An accelerated energy transition is needed to respond to climate change.
According to the Paris Agreement, 196 countries have already committed to limiting global warming to below 2°C, preferably 1.5°C. However, changing the energy system after over a century of burning fossil fuels comes with challenges.
In the above graphic from our sponsor Wood Mackenzie, we discuss the challenges that come with the increasing demand for transition metals.
Building Blocks of a Decarbonized World
Mined commodities like lithium, cobalt, graphite and rare earths are critical to producing electric vehicles (EVs), wind turbines, and other technologies necessary to burn fewer fossil fuels and reduce overall carbon emissions.
EVs, for example, can have up to six times more minerals than a combustion vehicle.
As a result, the extraction and refining of these metals will need to be expedited to limit the rise of global temperatures.
Here’s the outlook for different metals under Wood Mackenzie’s Accelerated Energy Transition (AET) scenario, in which the world is on course to limit the rise in global temperatures since pre-industrial times to 1.5°C by the end of this century.
|Metal||Demand Outlook (%) 2025||2030||2035||2040|
Graphite demand is expected to soar 1,100% by 2040, as demand for lithium is expected to jump 940% over this time.
A Challenge to Satisfy the Demand for Lithium
Lithium-ion batteries are indispensable for transport electrification and are also commonly used in cell phones, laptop computers, cordless power tools, and other devices.
Lithium demand in an AET scenario is estimated to reach 6.7 million tons by 2050, nine times more than 2022 levels.
In the same scenario, EV sales will double by 2030, making the demand for Li-ion batteries quadruple by 2050.
The ESG Challenge with Cobalt
Another metal in high demand is cobalt, used in rechargeable batteries in smartphones and laptops and also in lithium-ion batteries for vehicles.
Increasing production comes with significant environmental and social risks, as cobalt reserves and mine production are concentrated in regions and countries with substantial ESG problems.
Currently, 70% of mined cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where nearly three-quarters of the population lives in extreme poverty.
|Country||2021 Production (Tonnes)|
|🇨🇩 Democratic Republic of the Congo||120,000|
|🇵🇬 Papua New Guinea||3,000|
Around one-fifth of cobalt mined in the DRC comes from small-scale artisanal mines, many of which rely on child labor.
Considering other obstacles like rising costs due to reserve depletion and surging resource nationalism, a shortfall in the cobalt market can emerge as early as 2024, according to Wood Mackenzie. Battery recycling, if fully utilised, can ease the upcoming supply shortage, but it cannot fill the entire gap.
Rare Earths: Winners and Losers
Rare earths are used in EVs and wind turbines but also in petroleum refining and gas vehicles. Therefore, an accelerated energy transition presents a mixed bag.
Using permanent magnets in applications like electric motors, sensors, and magnetic recording and storage media is expected to boost demand for materials like neodymium (Nd) and praseodymium (Pr) oxide.
On the contrary, as the world shifts from gas vehicles to EVs, declining demand from catalytic converters in fossil fuel-powered vehicles will impact lanthanum (La) and cerium (Ce).
Taking all into consideration, the demand for rare earths in an accelerated energy transition is forecasted to increase by 233% between 2020 and 2050. In this scenario, existing producers would be impacted by a short- to medium-term supply deficit.
The ESG dilemma
There is a clear dilemma for energy transition metals in an era of unprecedented demand. Can vital energy transition metals markets ramp up production fast enough to satisfy demand, while also revolutionising supply chains to meet ever-more stringent ESG requirements?
Understanding the challenges and how to capitalise on this investment opportunity has become more important than ever.
Sign up to Wood Mackenzie’s Inside Track to learn more about the impact of an accelerated energy transition on mining and metals.
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.
How Mine Permitting Delays Impact the Transition to a Green Economy
Currently, the U.S. has a backlog of more than 280 mining projects awaiting permits.
Mine Permitting Delays and the Transition to a Green Economy
Minerals are essential components in many of our daily-use products, such as cell phones, laptops, and cars.
In fact, every American uses nearly 40,000 pounds of newly mined materials each year.
In the United States, however, the current permitting process makes it difficult for businesses to invest in the extraction and processing of minerals, such as copper.
This graphic by Northern Dynasty explores the untapped potential of mineral resources in America.
Copper, a Critical Material
In 2023 the U.S. Department of Energy officially added copper to its critical materials list, following the examples of the European Union, Japan, India, Canada, and China.
Copper is a highly efficient conductor of electricity and is considered vital for clean energy technologies such as solar, wind energy, and electric vehicles.
Green energy-related copper demand is expected to increase by nearly 600% by 2030. In this scenario, the copper market could see an annual deficit of up to about 1.5 million tonnes by 2035.
Despite having more than 53 million tons of copper reserves, the U.S. imports 45% of its copper from other countries.
This is the highest level of import reliance in over 30 years. One of the biggest reasons for this is the country’s mine permitting process.
A Rigorous Mine Permitting Process
Mines are large-scale projects that demand extensive research and policies. As a result, mining projects can take 16 years, or more, to start production.
Currently, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management—which regulates land use in the country—has a permitting backlog of more than 280 mining projects.
In addition, environmental activists have adopted a “not in my backyard” stance towards domestic mining. As a result, companies have often had to resort to litigation to make any progress in the permitting process.
“Activists have weaponized the government bodies that are essential to the safe and responsible development of domestic mines,” says Michael Westerlund, VP Investor Relations at Northern Dynasty Minerals.
The company owns the largest undeveloped copper deposit in the world, named Pebble, in Alaska. Pebble and other five major copper projects totaling over 11 billion tonnes in copper resources have been delayed because of the Federal permitting process.
The Largest Undeveloped Copper Deposit in the World
The Pebble Project has been through a roller coaster of regulatory activity for the past 15 years.
Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the depositing of mining waste near the mining project in Alaska, citing potential harm to the local sockeye salmon industry.
However, the veto directly contradicts findings from the Federal government that concluded that mining and fishing could coexist in the region.
“Alaska does resource development better than any other place on the planet, and our opportunities to show the world a better way to extract our resources should not be unfairly preempted by the Federal Government”
–Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy
Projects like Pebble can provide significant economic benefits and support the U.S. transition to a greener future. With the current regulatory uncertainty for U.S. developers, where the much-needed supply of copper will come from is unknown.
Click here to learn more about Pebble.
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