Ecological transition: “All-round metal-saving innovations and progress are to be expected”

In Le Monde 16/02/2024 (full version)

The energy transition will lead to a reduction of the extractive industrie, mainly coal, according to counter-intuitive statements by Dutch researchers at Leiden and Delft Universities (“Energy transition will require substantially less mining than the current fossil system“, Joule no. 7/11, November 2023). Without coal, the only thing that will remain is a metallurgical mining footprint on a much smaller scale than that of hard coal, and above all well below the forecasts of a surge in the extraction of the metals needed for the transition – the infamous “rare metals” – which have fuelled fears of a shortage, political announcements at both national and European level, and denunciations of the growing hold of extractive industries (nickel, manganese, lithium, cobalt…) with destructive consequences for the environment and human rights.

Studies by the World Bank and the International Energy Agency

Until now, metal consumption forecasts have been based on those of the World Bank in 2020, and those of the International Energy Agency in its “Net-zero emissions 2050” report, published in 2021. The former based its scenario on one of its own studies on “the role of metals in a low-carbon world”, dating from 2017. And the second was inspired by the first.

The Dutch study, unlike those of institutions accustomed to the non-recyclable nature of hydrocarbons, achieves this optimistic result by taking into account the improved recycling of the stock of metals already accumulated over the last ten years, an inventory  which the researchers predict will continue to grow until 2040.

Unfortunately, however, this study assesses the rest of the supply-demand balance using the IEA’s old metal demand assumptions, which would require at the very least an update, if not a debugging the software. This is because they ignore the greatest chance of reducing the mining footprint: reducing consumption, guided by metal substitution technologies in production, transport, storage and electricity consumption.

Admittedly, nothing is made without metals in wind turbines or photovoltaic panels, in ultra-high-voltage transmission lines, in batteries and in electric cars. But innovation in metal consumption is permanent. It’s true that this industrial facet is not intuitive for the uninitiated in the world of academia, politics or finance.

For more than twenty years, numerous technical innovations, not anticipated by the World Bank and the IEA, have been discovered and then confirmed. The most striking example concerns the consumption of metals in electric vehicle batteries.

Citing the cost of cobalt, as early as February 2020, China’s CATL (accumulators) and America’s Tesla agreed to replace NMC (nickel, manganese, cobalt) batteries in their cars with LFP (lithium, iron, phosphate) batteries. A year later, Elon Musk put forward a second, more geostrategic reason: there is more iron in the earth’s crust than nickel. And there’s another well-known fact: too much nickel increases the risk of battery fires.

Yet the World Bank’s 2020 study mentions NMCs 18 times, and LFPs just once. One year later, the IEA mentions NMCs 64 times and LFPs 23 times. Before 2020, China had already made this choice, and almost 70% of the batteries installed in Chinese electric cars today are LFPs. Europe and the United States are now moving in the same direction.

“Rare metals” madness

Caught up in the “rare metals” madness, three years ago no one at the World Bank or the IEA doubted, questioned the doxa or included the possibility of substitution, reduction or even disappearance of this nickel and cobalt consumption. Worse still, studies from the two institutions got mixed up and fed the geological wokism of “rare metals” fake news. This in turn created environmental anxiety, particularly among teenagers.

Surprisingly, the same speculations are still rife in public debate. Yet the gradual decline in demand for nickel is already visible, as the market is overwhelmed by overproduction by the world’s leading producer, Indonesia. In Brazil, Australia and Colombia, it is affecting the future of mining projects, but also the future of mines with unreasonable costs. This is why miners Vale and Glencore are merging their nickel mines in Canada, and why the nickel rescue operation concocted by Paris in New Caledonia appears to be too little, too late, and therefore another strategic error. This overproduction, better anticipated, would also have made it possible to definitively eliminate the prospect of submarine mines, such as those promised by Norway or in the Pacific. Not only are these unresolved ecological issues, but they will be all the more useless as their resource is mainly nickel.

Substitution is the key

There are invisible evidences. Nor were the substitution of other metals considered in these studies. There is no forecast of the substitution of lithium by sodium; nothing on permanent magnets without rare earths; nothing on the disappearance of rare earths from wind turbines or electric car engines, even though they are present in gasoline-powered cars; even less on the equipollence between the quantities of copper embarked in hydrocarbon-powered cars and 48-volt electric cars; nothing on a more general idea: the energy efficiency of the metals in a Tesla or a BYD is to electric cars today what the energy efficiency of the little 1908 Ford T was to contemporary combustion-powered cars. Metal-saving innovations and advances are therefore to be expected on all fronts.

In the end, the Dutch study was true to the sophism of “reasoning truth from false”. It goes in the right direction on the basis of inaccurate elements, but is only halfway there when it concludes that more than half of the extractive right-of-way linked to the energy transition will disappear between 2021 and 2050. Fortunately, it will be much more; and oil will also decrease thanks to an increasing metallurgical mining footprint. But as always, mining will be tempered by its environmental impact, which will continue to improve, and above all thanks to reduced consumption as a result of advances in eco-design, substitution and recycling.

Far less than the current use of metals, coal, oil and gas, the energy transition is leading us towards a sharp reduction in the extractive industry.