Minerals in the Fight Against Climate Change

April 24, 2019

Decarbonizing technologies in wind, solar and batteries are driving the demand for natural resources, particularly industrial minerals and construction materials. Photo: UNDP

by Degol Hailu and Caroline Ngonze

Goal seven of the SDGs aims to increase the share of renewables in the global energy mix and upgrade the technology for supplying them. At the same time, the Paris Agreement brings nations into collective action towards a low-emission development path. What role do minerals play in this effort to combat climate change?

Decarbonizing technologies in wind, solar and batteries are driving the demand for natural resources, particularly industrial minerals and construction materials.  

Take wind energy for instance. It is estimated to generate about a fifth of the world’s electricity output by 2030, which could reduce CO2 emissions by about 3bn tons every year. But, the hidden story is the amount of minerals necessary to build wind turbines. The World Bank reports that a single 3-megawatt wind turbine requires 1,200 tons of concrete, 335 tons of steel, 4.7 tons of copper, 3 tons of aluminium and 2 tons of rare earth elements.

What about solar energy? Today, over half of the global renewable energy capacity comes from solar photovoltaic technologies (PV). The forecast is that, by 2030, solar energy will make up a third of all renewable energy sources. PV cells are built from silicon, aluminium, polymers, silver and tin. The glass on solar panels is a product of silica sand.

Batteries, the third piece in the renewable energy mix, are already powering our vehicles and gadgets that solely run on carbon previously. Think of electric cars, sales of which are growing at an average monthly rate of 4%. Lithium, cobalt and graphite, champions of conductivity, are produced and used at a staggering rate to power batteries that come in various sizes and shapes.

But, where do these minerals come from? Artisanal and small-scale miners produce a significant proportion of them. And most of them are in developing countries. Hence, two obvious questions come to mind: 1) Do the miners have an equal share of the benefits from the sale of their minerals? and 2) What is happening to people and planet under an even greater extraction of natural resources to satisfy our clean energy needs?

Receiving an equal share of benefits means that the miners are not just passive price takers, but powerful players in the minerals market. They would have the entrepreneurial skills as well as access to finance, technologies and markets. It also means policy makers need to move away from the “enclave model” of minerals development—whereby extraction is carried out mostly for export of raw commodities, while mining projects are monetised through royalties. This time around, the transition to clean energy must consider the need to build domestic value addition and processing capacity.

Ultimately, extraction has to have a human face. If the coming decades are about mineral-based clean energy transitions, they should not happen at a cost to the environment and communities. We know enough to avoid excessive deforestation, soil erosion, water contamination, dust and noise pollution that often accompany mineral extraction. Here, a well-developed regulatory capacity has no substitute. Not only should communities live in a safe environment, but the clean energy “goldrush” need also not come with displacements, use of child labour and conflict over land.

The good news is that there are many governments, civil society and international organisations working to stave off the ills associated with mineral extraction. UNDP is one of them. Together with the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States and the European Union, UNDP implements the Development Minerals Programme.  The Programme supports artisanal and small-scale miners to increase their productivity and develop value chains; while adhering to international environmental, labour, health and safety standards.