In Data: We Can Reduce Mining by Switching to Clean Energy

January 18, 2023

Hannah Ritchie is deputy Editor of the Our World in Data website, which is a project of Oxford University.

Hannah Ritchie in Substack:

“Moving to low-carbon energy means digging millions of tonnes of minerals out of the earth”. I hear this argument used against renewable energy and electric vehicles a lot.

It sounds like a lot, but is it really? Let’s take a look.

We currently mine around 7 million tonnes of minerals for low-carbon technologies every year.

That includes all of the minerals for solar panels, wind energy, geothermal, concentrating solar power, hydropower, nuclear, electric vehicles, battery storage, and changes to electricity grids. I’ve included a complete list of the minerals included in the footnote.

But we need to deploy more low-carbon energy, fast. This will need to increase. How much will be mining once the low-carbon transition really picks up speed? 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that in 2040 we will need 28 million tonnes. This is in its ‘Sustainable Development Scenario’, which assumes a fast deployment of low-carbon energy.

That’s a lot of stuff to be digging out of the earth. Until we compare it to what we’re moving away from: fossil fuels.

Every year we produce the equivalent of 15 billion tonnes of coal, oil, and gas. This comparison is shown in the chart.

Sources for all of these figures are included at the end of the article.

At its fastest rate of deployment, mining quantities for low-carbon energy will be 500 to 1000 times less than current fossil fuel production. 

But even this underestimates the differences in these quantities: the numbers for fossil fuels are the amount we need every year because they’re the ‘running’ costs. 

The minerals for low-carbon energy are like capital costs. The running costs after these technologies have been deployed are much less. We won’t maintain these big numbers forever: it will be a temporary scale-up if we develop affordable methods of recycling them. If we cannot recycle them (which I find unlikely), then this scale-up will occur periodically every few decades.

We can’t wait for the ‘perfect’ solution, or we will do nothing

Here I’m only looking at quantity. Of course, that doesn’t cover everything we care about. 

The environmental and social impacts of mineral mining and fossil fuel mining are not necessarily the same. In fact, mining any mineral or fuel does not have the same impact everywhere: mining from rainforests, indigenous lands, or protected land is not the same as uninhabited deserts.

On some metrics, per tonne impacts of fossil fuels will be worse. On some, it’s the opposite.

The other important question is how our mining rates compare to the total amount of resources that we have. Will we run out of minerals? I look at this question for lithium here, and the distribution of minerals across the world here. The summary is: not any time soon, but we’d benefit a lot from improved recycling and repurposing of these minerals.

With the right comparison, it’s easy to make renewables, electric vehicles and nuclear energy look bad. Just frame it as “low-carbon energy needs millions of tonnes of minerals”. They look bad because they’re comparing it to a world of zero impact. But this is not realistic. We can’t build low-carbon energy without digging minerals out of the earth. We have to compare it to the problem that we’re trying to solve.

I see these dodgy framings everywhere. Take the safety of renewables and nuclear energy. Newspapers report an accident at a solar or wind plant, and people assume that these sources are dangerous. What they’re forgetting is that fossil fuels kill millions every year from air pollution. Nuclear and renewables are not perfect, but they are hundreds to thousands of times safer, even without considering climate change.

We can’t delay action on climate change because we don’t have the ‘perfect’ solution. I wrote about this here.


2 Responses to “In Data: We Can Reduce Mining by Switching to Clean Energy”

  1. They’re comparison is with mostly coal which is much different than mining other minerals. Coal seams are pretty much pure coal. It just has to be scooped up, pulverized and put in the boxcars. Metals have to be separated from their ore which involve much harder processes.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      in West Virginia, miners remove an average of 16 tons of “overburden” ie mountain tops in a unique ecosystem, for every ton of coal removed.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: