Mining, BRIMM and the Climate Emergency

BRIMM Summer 2021 Newsletter; June 2021
Op-Ed by Director Dr. John Steen

On May 17, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a detailed scenario of what would be needed to meet the target of net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 to keep global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees, compared with pre-industrial times. For those who follow the science and economics research on climate change, it has been clear for some time that we are not on track to achieve this target. This is disturbing because, beyond the target of 1.5 degrees, the world becomes a place of environmental damage, water and food scarcity, diminished economic growth and increased chance of international conflicts. At three degrees above pre-industrial levels, the dystopian situation is hard to contemplate. Still, with world-leading research evidence, the Australian Academy of Science has published new projections that show a three-degree future for living in Australia that they describe as ‘seriously ugly’.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has published numerous reports on the risks of climate change and the actions required to avoid dangerous increases in global temperature. What was different about the recent IEA report was the level of detail about the energy transition requirements to reach net-zero by 2050. Last week, I had discussions with two energy experts who have found the report to be very challenging. Their previous assumptions about the importance of transition fuels like natural gas are replaced in the IEA scenario by the need for a hard stop on new fossil fuel infrastructure in general. The conventional belief that economic growth is correlated with energy consumption is broken in the IEA scenario, where efficiency innovations will result in an overall decrease in energy consumption while achieving economic growth. Achieving net-zero by 2050 is a moon-shot, but it’s one that we need to do our best to make a reality.

An essential part of this 1.5-degree target is the electrification of the global economy and the virtual elimination of fossil fuels. The IEA report makes it clear that getting to net-zero carbon emissions requires an enormous quantity of metals to do this by producing batteries, electric motors, wind turbines, solar panels and a wide range of other renewable energy technologies.  Achieving hit net-zero by 2050 would require six times more mineral inputs in 2040 than today. This echoes the Climate Smart Mining report from the World Bank in 2020, which stated that:

In the last 500 years, about 550 Mt of copper has been produced. The world will need about the same amount of copper in the next 25 years to meet demand.

The vast scale of this demand means that while recycling metals will be necessary, the majority of materials needed to build the zero-carbon transport and energy infrastructure will need to be mined. If we can’t produce these materials reliably and at a low cost, the energy transition will be jeopardized.

UBC is consistently ranked as a leading global university in sustainability. When UBC students and faculty engage in political activism to advance progress towards meeting Paris climate goals, I applaud them. Our future and the future of our children depends on everyone playing their part. The ‘heavy lifting’ by UBC to achieve climate goals will be accomplished through the science and technological advances that our faculty are famous for. Within BRIMM, we need to communicate how our research supports the energy transition by ensuring that the metals for rebuilding the global energy system are available to the worldwide economy.

All of BRIMM’s research programs relate to this goal of efficiently producing metals with minimal environmental impacts. Biomining holds tremendous promise for extracting metals using minimal amounts of water and energy compared to mechanical extraction methods. The Sustainable Mine Energy Systems program is looking to maximize renewable energy use on mine sites and use mine waste as a carbon sink, potentially capturing gigatons of CO2. The Water Stewardship theme is researching water efficiency and how climate change will create operational risks for mining through more droughts and floods. Lastly, Orebody Knowledge will enable the development of new mines that can produce minerals safely and efficiently.

For many people, it is counterintuitive that mining is essential for meeting the Paris agreement targets. In a world where politics is becoming increasingly polarized, we need to seize the high ground to show how scientific evidence and engineered solutions are our best weapons in the fight against climate change.