The one-sentence summary: You do have to mine to produce minerals for a clean energy world, but you don’t need to do it anywhere near as much as in a fossil fuel world – the total mining burden would drop by 80%.
WHAT THE BOOK SAYS
This is a well-researched review of the alternative to fossil fuels written by the long-time commodities and mining reporter for The Financial Times.
We depend on a handful of metals and rare earths to power our phones and computers and, increasingly, our cars and our homes. Whoever controls these finite commodities will become rich beyond imagining.
The book looks at the troubled history of the electric vehicle, the lithium-ion revolution, the Chinese lithium rush, the cobalt problem (including blood cobalt), dirty nickel, green copper, and even mining the deep sea (technically ‘dredging nodules’, because it does not involve extraction).
The battery age depends on a small group of metals – lithium, cobalt, copper and nickel. A range of characters and companies are scrambling for these resources, from remote mines in the Congo and Chile’s Atacama Desert to giant Chinese battery factories through to shadowy commodity traders and secret billionaires who control mining rights.
But it is the new generation of scientists attempting to solve the dilemma of a greener world that hold out the best prospects.
Even if the worst abuses of the mining world were 10 times more frequent than alleged, they would not come close to matching the damage from fossil fuels that batteries, solar panels and wind turbines could replace.
In a recent study, 8.7 million people a year, most of them poor, die from breathing the particulates and other by-products of coal, oil and gas – one death in five on the planet, more than HIV/Aids, malaria, tuberculosis, war and terrorism combined.
The price of renewables has come inexorably down over the years because, as much as minerals, they depend on intelligence.
40% of ship traffic on our planet at present is simply shipping coal, oil and gas eternally back and forth.
A response to corruption, labour abuses, material shortages and pollution is new engineering that finds a different way to the same end.
WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT
“Industry owes it to society to conserve materials in every possible way. Not only for the element of cost in the manufactured article, although that is important, but mostly for the conservation of those materials whose production and transportation are laying an increasing burden on society.” Henry Ford, 1926
“Mining is not everything, but without mining everything is nothing.” Max Planck
The average electric car contains 83 kilograms of copper, over three times that in a petrol one. The length of electrical wires in a car has grown to more than 4 kilometres. We are due to consume more copper over the next 25 years than we have in the last 5,000 years.
Perhaps surprisingly, in 1900 electric cars accounted for 38% of vehicles and petrol 22%. In New York the Electric Vehicle Company provided electric vehicles for hire. But Edison took too long to perfect his battery, and in the meanwhile Ford won the race using petrol.
The resources we need are buried in the earth’s crust, so what environmental and social cost are we willing to bear to extract them?
For every one percent you want to grow GDP, you must increase mined volumes by 2 percent.
To meet Tesla’s targets would require four times the amount of lithium the world currently produces – demand will grow a hundredfold by 2050.
There is a price to everything: What’s the point of electrifying Norway’s vehicle fleet if we have to emit hundreds of millions of tonnes of CO2 in China? The atmosphere’s greenhouse effect doesn’t care where the CO2 molecules come from.
ASM is artisanal mining – mainly individuals digging small tunnels to mine cobalt in the Congo. After many exposés, no one wants to go near it now.
A conflict mineral is only technically so if there is war in the country where it is mined.
Our continued consumption of goods imposes what Peter Dauvergne calls ecological shadows of consumption onto distant communities and poorer people.
Mining companies are essentially in the waste production business, because it involves digging up rock that contains small amounts of valuable metals and disposing of the rest.
It is estimated that there are around a billion batteries in US homes sitting in old laptops and phones, all of which contain valuable metals that can be recycled.
We throw away 50 million tonnes of electronic waste a year. There is more gold in a tonne of this e-waste than in a tonne of mined ore. The concentration of minerals in old electronics is much higher than it is in nature.
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