The Dark Side of Sustainability

In a recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), in May 2021, entitled “Net Zero by 2050” concerns regarding the high mineral requirements associated with manufacturing clean energy systems were raised. It has been forecast that if the world is to reach its target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, then demand ‘critical minerals’ – including lithium, copper, cobalt and nickel – is expected to rise six-fold.

The observation represents a so-called “dark side of sustainability”, the associated requirements to achieving net-zero that are often left uncovered or are only briefly communicated in scientific and governmental reports. Such a large demand spike for said ‘critical minerals’ is of specific concern when the associated environmental and knock-on economic impacts are considered. In a press release linked to the report by the IEA in May 2021, the Executive Director of the IEA – Fatih Birol – noted that while the challenge is not insurmountable, there are risks of future price volatility and supply disruptions, which if left unaddressed could severely hamper actions to tackle climate change.

We are at a crossroads whereby the greater investment is needed to help fund critical research on renewable energy solutions, yet economic desires to profit off of net-zero transitions hold the potential to jeopardise our planet’s future. This is specifically illustrated through growing investment in mining projects, with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) noting in 2020 that the extractions of minerals have risen exponentially across the last decade, at a faster rate than economic growth. This trend is expected to continue long into the future, associated with a growing global population alongside net-zero transitions. While there are calls and plans for greater capacity for recycling of mineral resources, notably of car batteries, Tim Gould of the IEA takes specific issue with said calls, noting that recycling is not yet established for lithium and other rare earth metals. He goes on to state that we will need an increase from around 100,000 tonnes of recycled minerals in the supply chain to 1.2 million tonnes between 2030 and 2040 – the latter figure representing 10% of total demand.

This raises a key opportunity for adaptation and development, with Youngsik Kim at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) raising the point that economies of scale will need to make recycling viable. This means that both politicians and manufacturers will play a role in ensuring that products can be more easily recycled and that the infrastructure is in place to facilitate this. This being said, in a report by the UNEP and the International Resource Panel, it is stated that despite efforts to decouple economies from resource use and to move towards greater recycling, the demand for extractive resources is set to continue – specifically in association with emerging economies.

A wider issue here is raised of sustainable development on national scales, with the overwhelming economic benefit that industrialization represents to many emerging economies it remains an uphill struggle to alter global development towards more sustainable solutions. This testament is reflected by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) noting in an insight report centred around technology and sustainable development, that there is both limited time to act, and a great need to ensure that technologies are both utilized to their full potential and in a sustainable manner.

With a greater push towards Net Zero energy transitions, there is a growing likelihood that we will experience the economic impacts of resource scarcity globally. As Ugo Bardi, Rolf Jakobi & Hiroshan Hettiarachchi consider in their 2016 paper, depleting mineral resources even now is making it increasingly difficult to ensure price shocks are avoided as a result of associated social or strategic conflicts. As touched upon previously through Youngsik Kim’s comments, the paper notes that the only way to eliminate the depletion problem is to move to an entirely circular economy, where all the resources are completely recycled. This represents both an expensive and an extremely complex management task, yet it may be increasingly necessary to ensure that Net-zero can be achieved in both a timely and sustainable manner itself.

As noted by Dr Laura Sonter of Queensland University, “destroying nature to be more sustainable would be the ultimate irony”. We will be solving one key problem, that of climate change, but will be creating another, of resource scarcity and sustainable energy equality, if we do not plan beyond the immediate future. There needs to be a fundamental rethinking of energy production and human consumption – as the planet is presently unable to support the rapid “green industrialisation” that we are seeing occur in its current form.

By Matthew Ball

Sector Head: Archit Lal

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