Is There Enough?
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Is There Enough?

As the world begins the "green transition" from an economy based on the use of fossil fuels to one where minerals pay an increasingly important part, it is alarming that so little attention is paid to whether we have enough of the required materials. In addition, many seem to ignore any ethical or moral concerns about obtaining the materials and the consequences of their mining or extraction.

On this page I'm looking at some general aspects of the availability of materials for the "green transition" and at the practical and moral issues that arise and are in danger of being swept aside by the rush.

Princeton WWS roadmaps

You may well have seen the work of Professor Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University and his team on transition to 100% clean and renewable wind, water and sunlight (WWS) all-sector energy.

This paper sets out details of the transition for the 50 United States. Variants provide similar roadmaps for other geographical entities.

The level of change required to execute such a transition would - of couse - be massive. Taken as a whole it would be greatest engineering programme ever attempted. This would be complicated by the many issues that would need to be addressed, including (but not limited to):

  • Political issues;
  • Governance;
  • Financing;
  • Technical consensus;
  • Evolving technology.

 

Such a programme would need many robust elements in its plan, and one of the most important would be a materials schedule, which would specify:

  • What materials are needed;
  • How much of each is needed;
  • When the materials will be needed;
  • How they will be obtained.

 

And of course there would potentially be political, human rights and other issues and obstacles to deal with.

However, the roadmaps by Professor Jacobson and his team do not contain materials schedules.

Without materials schedules, how can anybody know how long these transitions will take, or whether they are even possible?

Note: There is some acknowledgement of materials "risks" in the roadmaps.

The challenge

In this article from McKinsey one of the major practical challenges - one that is often completely ignored - is that the range of materials that the world needs is extremely broad. Some of the materials are readily available and can be obtained with relative ease, whilst others have varying challenges. The material may be in short supply already, with limited opportunity to increase that supply. It may be in great demand for many uses for different applications, with consequential conflicts over who uses it and for what.

As McKinsey put it "Because metals and mining is a long lead-time, highly capital-intensive sector, price fly-ups and bottlenecks will be unavoidable as demand outstrips supply and price volatility creates uncertainty around the large up-front capital investments needed for production."

And as the article also points out "...net-zero commitments are outpacing the formation of supply chains, market mechanisms, financing models, and other solutions and structures needed to smooth the world’s decarbonization pathway."

McKinsey are clear that they believe the supply vs demand issues will be resolved by "the market" and review various pertinent scenarios.

But should we leave our current uncoordinated approach to "the market"? Surely our representatives should be producing a future pathway that is much more "joined-up" in its approach?

Do we have enough?

This article in the Washington Post addresses the question of whether we have enough of the required materials.

Unfortunately it's not a question anybody can currently actually answer, as there is no consensus on what the "green transition" needs. There are many "plans" - some of which I will be looking at elsewhere on this site - but almost (but not quite) without exception none of them includes a materials schedule. Put simply a mterials schedule lists "what we need, when we need it and where we're going to get it from". It may well include other elements, such as those related to costs, etc. but without knowing what we actually need, how can we know if we have enough?

One very important aspect of looking at where we have enough is to know what we have or can get. The USGS is a key source for this information. It is also essential to understand the difference between reserves and resources, which the article explains.

But as the article points out "The larger problem may be not whether the world as a whole has enough critical minerals — but whether they are available quickly enough and in the right places." Not only are the resources unevenly distributed, but there are multiple issues associated with their recovery, including rights and ownership, human rights issues and the ecological issues associated with their mining or extraction.

And it is surely time to ensure that whatever is to be mined or extracted there should be fair reward for all of those who actually do the work.