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5 things you should know about ‘clean’ energy minerals and the dirty process of mining them

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Growing market

The shift to a clean energy system will lead to a huge increase in the need for these minerals. Between 2017 and 2022, demand for lithium tripled, demand for nickel rose by 40 percent, and demand for cobalt jumped by 70 per cent, according to the International Energy Agency.

If the world is to fully embrace renewable energy and reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions, the use of energy transition minerals will need to increase six-fold by 2040. That would push the market value of transition minerals to over US$400 billion.

New era

With effective policies and safeguards, the extraction of these substances could kick off a new era of sustainable development, creating jobs and helping countries to reduce poverty. “For some countries, energy transition minerals could be absolutely transformative, under the right conditions,” says Ligia Noronha, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and head of the New York office of the UN Environment Program (UNEP).

Several concerns

“We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past with a systematic exploitation of developing countries reduced to the production of basic raw materials,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently warned. Rights groups have warned of human rights abuses throughout the industry, including at mines in developing countries. There have also been reports of forced labor at some sites.

Mining can devastate the environment if done unsustainably, leading to deforestation, water pollution and what is known as dewatering. Just to take one example, it takes two million liters of water to extract a single ton of lithium. But some 50 percent of global copper and lithium production are concentrated in areas with water scarcity.

UN job

A UN-wide effort is under way to ensure energy transition minerals are fairly and sustainably managed. The push was launched in 2023, with the aim of building trust, reliability and sustainability into the supply chains of these minerals.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN Environment Program is working with the authorities to develop a national plan for the extraction of minerals, like cobalt. The plan would focus on minimizing the environmental impact of mining and explore whether local and international institutions can help resolve conflict around mineral extraction. UN News


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