Geoscience and the clean energy transition – A global view

by Anne Thompson, Editor and Communications Chair – RFG2018

We are bombarded by stories about shortages of critical resources as well as about amazing technologies that will change our lives without realizing the contradiction – both cannot be possible. Resource demands are complicated but have important implications for global poverty eradication, as well as for the supply of clean water and energy, both key to the UN’s sustainability development goals for 2030 (#SDG2030).

UN

Discovering the solutions to this conundrum requires an understanding of the Earth’s heterogeneity and processes, as well as the complex interplay of technologic and social issues that in combination govern the availability of resources. It will also require an ability to collectively imagine a sustainable future for humans. Sound impossible?

Desmond Bull of the Maskwacis Nation in Alberta, Canada, has led the way for his community, helping to build several small solar installations on community buildings. The ultimate benefits are reductions in energy costs, as well as training in installation for local people, providing jobs and a vision for the future (Pembina Institute – Report).

Capture

“If we can prove this can be done here in a First Nation community, I believe every country or every city has the opportunity to move in this direction so they can become more self-sufficient, but also create capacity development and have people trained in their local community.” Desmond Bull (from ‘Charged Up‘, David Suzuki Foundation) Photo Credit: Green Energy Futures – David Dodge, via Flickr

But as compelling as each individual story is, what does the global picture look like? Basic human needs include heat, electricity, clean water and transportation, not to mention infrastructure (think steel beams), data centers, and just about anything else people need or use in their daily life that also require energy and materials. The ways in which we meet our needs, however, are rapidly changing, and views on how we should develop resources in the future are divergent. The reality is that we need a variety of solutions, along with innovative developments in efficiency and power delivery to create sustainable supplies well into the future. Earth-sourced materials will be needed for whatever supply choices we make – the changing mix of oil and gas to the metals and minerals needed for solar, wind and battery storage. At the same time, creative initiatives driving towards the ‘circular economy’ will also help to decrease energy inputs into many products.

Current energy and electricity needs are met across the globe in very different ways, with some countries moving more quickly than others towards a clean energy transition. Below are examples of the widely different sources of energy, in this case comparing the USA and the European Union (figures from Euan Mearns, Earth Matters, based on BP statistics). In 2015, 55 percent of EU energy production could be classed as low carbon, or clean energy. By contrast that number for the USA was 16 percent. Much has already improved since 2015, but global differences remain, with significant implications for climate change and the need to continue to transition.

US Energy
EU Energy

With a global population expected to climb to nine billion by 2050, meeting basic needs would be challenging enough. Climate change and the human influence on it, however, are creating substantial new challenges, requiring an understanding the Earth’s climate system and the potential impacts of change. Like other natural phenomena, there are numerous interrelated parts to the puzzle. Many focus on the extent and rate of change, and the problems for wildlife, agriculture, and humans, but how many people realize that mitigating the impacts of climate change requires resources?

A World Bank report, published in mid-2017, used International Energy Agency data to determine the amount of metals in renewable energy, grid storage, and electric vehicles that will limit global temperature increases by 2050. To restrict the global temperature increase to 2oC, there will be a dramatic increase in metal use and therefore production – both for major commodities such as copper, aluminum, nickel and zinc, and even more for the specialty metals that are critical to clean energy technologies – lithium, cobalt, indium etc. There are many assumptions and uncertainties in these calculations, not least being a high probability of new technologies in the future that may be less metal intense, but even if the results are significantly wrong, we can still anticipate a major increase in the demand for metals.

Ages of Energy

“The global community is well aware of the threat that rising sea levels pose to low-lying countries. We need similar awareness of the crucial role minerals are playing in the energy transition, and the risk that supply problems could derail sustainability goals.” WEF 2017 minerals key to clean energy

Amongst the major metals, copper remains fundamental to our future and demand is still increasing. More copper is expected to be needed in the next 26 years than has been mined in all of history (MINEX Consulting, Schodde 2017

Metals
Although occurring globally, economic supplies of the major metals are still limited in their geographic distribution. This means that to acquire necessary supplies we need cooperation and trade, maximizing benefit to local communities, and continued advances in efficiency of extraction, combined with efforts to recycle and reuse.

USGS Copper

Where are copper deposits found? Worldwide copper database – USGS, used by the mineral assessment program to evaluate copper availability globally.

In Europe and Canada, several initiatives are under way to understand the priority actions needed to provide secure and responsibly sourced energy and metals for future generations. The rapid growth in new technology depends on a suite of unique and minor materials, usually used in complex combinations. Rare earth elements are not needed in large quantities, but there are significant current political and geographic limitations to supply. Two consortia —the SoS RARE Project, based at the British Geological Survey in the UK, and the Canadian Rare Earth Element Network, a network of researchers and linked projects facilitated by the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum, will meet this summer at the Resources for Future Generations (RFG2018) conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. These groups are working collaboratively to understand the steps in the critical metal supply chain. The focus will be on geology, exploration, mining and decommissioning, and related environmental matters, supported by significant discussions on beneficiation, extraction, separation and refining to end uses.

The work of these two groups is just one part of the much larger efforts to address the need for more metals in the next 30-40 years. The implications are that we will need more mines, more infrastructure, and more energy and water to support mining and processing of metals, and all of this may lead to more issues related to permitting, community support and the environment. Simply put, if we are going to produce more metals in order to make the world a better place for humans, we have to work out how to do it more efficiently and responsibly. The same arguments can be made for energy in general, and water in many areas. Ultimately, a basic standard of living for an increasing global population, combined with technological advances that lead to a more sustainable world, will require abundant resources that must be delivered in a way that benefits all.

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The multi-sector and multidisciplinary topic of supplying ‘Resources for Future Generations’ will be addressed and debated at the RFG2018 conference in June 2018, in Vancouver (www.rfg2018.org). Participants will examine energy, minerals and water from technical and societal perspectives. The sources of resources in the Earth and ways to improve discovery and responsible extraction will be addressed. The conference will also focus on the roles of industry, governments, indigenous people, and communities – discussing and evaluating the issues and opportunities for the future.

Most importantly, young people are encouraged to participate in the conference and the resource debate because they will be the consumers, problem solvers, and protectors of the environment in years to come.

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