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Food for thought for world leaders discussing climate change

This week, world leaders are gathering in Paris to push for an agreement on climate change, which could spell the end of the fossil era, and ring in the age of post-carbon technology.  In a recent piece for the New York Times, David S. Abraham points to an important, yet oft-ignored paradox:

“(…) even as our leaders are pushing us to use fewer resources, their vision will force us to use more.

Though energy from the sun and wind appears boundless, the resources needed to turn it into power are not. And as we move away from oil, gas and coal, there is increasing demand for the rare metals that are at the heart of green technology.”

As Abraham points out, this shift will have serious economic and environmental consequences, and expose us to potential supply disruptions unless we begin addressing the underlying issues associated with trading one resource dependency for another.

Aside from geologic supply questions, the bigger problem lies in the fact that mineral exploration is a complex process fraught with many technological, environmental and regulatory hurdles. As a result, in the U.S., supply lines generally take 10 to 15 years to develop.

Another issue spells trouble, according to Abraham:

“Specialty metals are rarely mined for themselves. They are byproducts of more lucratively mined metals like copper. This means that even if prices of a rare metal were to skyrocket, companies often have little economic incentive to produce them if it means sacrificing some base metal production or investing in new processing equipment. If supplies cannot be produced in a timely way, these specialty metals will become more expensive, limiting their use.”

Increased efficiency and substitution, often hailed as a silver bullet by some, can only be part of the solution, “as even if electric cars, for example, use 50 percent less rare metal per car, the increase in vehicles needed to meet green energy goals will lead to vast demand.”

World leaders would be well-advised to keep Abraham’s bottom line in mind as they work to forge their agreement this week:

“Over a century ago, we jumped into fossil fuels without understanding the ramifications of their use. We would do well to realize the resource implications of our green ambitions and develop a resource plan with them in mind.”