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New IEA Report Underscores Material Inputs of Net Zero Energy System By 2050, Indicates Support for “All of the Above” Approach to Mineral Resource Security

2022 Ford F-150 Lightning Platinum
Touting his infrastructure package at Ford’s electric vehicle plant in Michigan last week, President Joe Biden declared: “The future of the auto industry is Dearborn,electric. There’s no turning back.”  Against the backdrop of the Biden Administration’s push for a low carbon energy future and a global push to reduce greenhouse gases, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has released a new study modeling scenarios for carbon neutrality by 2050.  Reading the IEA Report in light of the president’s comment, there’s “no turning back” to prior levels of demand for energy-critical minerals and metals either.

“The world has a viable pathway to building a global energy sector with net-zero emissions in 2050, but it is narrow and requires an unprecedented transformation of how energy is produced, transported and used globally,” say the authors of “Net Zero by 2050: a Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector.” 

Sure to cause a stir and ruffle some feathers, the agency portrays the report as “the world’s first comprehensive study of how to transition to a net zero energy system by 2050 while ensuring stable and affordable energy supplies, providing universal energy access, and enabling robust economic growth.”

While calling for an “immediate and massive deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies, combined with a major global push to accelerate innovation,” the report also makes clear that this shift will not be feasible without the mining sector, because it will require massive material inputs on the critical minerals front:

“Minerals are essential components in many of today’s rapidly growing clean energy technologies – from wind turbines and electricity networks to electric vehicles. Demand for these minerals will grow quickly as clean energy transitions gather pace.”

Meanwhile, according to Faith Birol, executive director of the IEA, “[t]he data shows a looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realising those ambitions.”

In order to achieve a framework for mineral resource security strong enough to underpin a net zero transition by 2050, the IEA study has identified six pillars of a broad approach to complement countries’ existing initiatives, ranging from ensuring adequate investment in the mineral supply chain (which could include bolstering national geological surveys, streamlining permitting procedures to shorten lead times, or providing financing support to de-risk projects) to promoting research and development and tech innovation all across the value chain, from extraction to recycling.

To those engaged in the current political discourse over critical mineral resource security who seem to see recycling as the holy grail or panacea, the IEA report throws a curveball, stating that “recycling of end-of-life lithium-ion batteries to recover the valuable minerals, and to a smaller extent their reuse as second-life batteries, can reduce combined primary supply requirements for these minerals by around 10%.”

While that number is certainly not negligible, the bottom line of the IEA study is in line with the consensus held by panelists at a virtual policy forum put on by U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources Republicans last week — which was that the United States must pursue an “all of the above” approach to critical mineral resource security.

[For more information on the policy forum, and a link to re-watch it in its entirety, click here.]

As John Adams, U.S. Army Brigadier General (ret.) wrote for Inside Sources:

“We have come to understand all too well the dangers of overreliance on OPEC and unstable regions of the world for oil. The lessons learned from 20th-century energy security are clear and the same mistakes must not be repeated with critical minerals.

Now is the moment to take a whole-of-government approach to address this challenge head-on. As the IEA report makes clear, doing so will require increased recycling of materials and strengthened cooperation with allied producer nations, but it will also require an energetic commitment to encourage responsible new domestic mineral production to meet the enormous demand now on the horizon. The sooner we recognize the importance of mining and critical materials to every dimension of our national security and economic agenda, the better off we will be.”

Photo credit: Ford