More energy transition = less mining

In La Tribune 19/12/2023

In the run-up to COP 28, a recent study from the Universities of Leiden and Delft in the Netherlands concludes that the energy transition will lead us to a much lower level of extraction of natural resources than that of our era, dominated by coal and other hydrocarbons.

However, this academic study is based on inaccurate figures: it is true, but it is founded on false elements, as it is based unchanged on the assumptions of the “net-zero emissions 2050” (NZE 2050) study by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Mining prospects leading to shortages

Despite the inclusion of some timid recycling – which, like any industrial process, is open to improvement – the conclusions of this NZE 2050 study have always been highly questionable. The reason for this is its excessive – and therefore insignificant – and gigantic mining prospects, leading to shortages, in order to meet future metal consumption. Excessive indeed, because NZE 2050 forgot to take into account the most important element of the energy transition: the reduction of the mining footprint thanks to a reduction in consumption guided by metals substitution of technological innovations.

The most glaring example is the consumption of metals in electric vehicle batteries. The World Bank’s 2020 study on critical metals, which inspired the IEA’s 2021 study, mentions the abbreviation NMC (for Nickel-Manganese-Cobalt batteries) 18 times, and LFP (for Iron-Phosphate batteries) just once. A year later, the IEA cited NMC 64 times, but LFP only 23 times.

Yet by 2020, thanks to CATL and Tesla, everyone knew that LFP batteries (without nickel and cobalt) were preferable to NMC batteries (with nickel and cobalt).

Remarkably, China was already leading the way at the time, and now almost 70% of batteries installed in electric cars are LFP batteries. Today, Europe and the USA are moving in the same direction.

Surprisingly, no one has explored the substitutive impact on nickel and cobalt consumption, and thus the incentive for moderation in mining forecasts. On the contrary, both studies emphasized the deleterious effects of increased consumption of both metals.

As an aside: with less nickel needed than forecast, is this why Paris’ current tactic in favor of New Caledonian nickel is a plan too little, too late, and therefore another strategic error?

Consequences of replacing lithium with sodium

In the same vein, the two studies by the World Bank and the IEA offer no outlook on 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 of the copper quantities embarked in electrically and hydrocarbon-powered cars; nothing on a more general idea: today’s Tesla is to the electric car what the FordT of 1908 was to today’s combustion-powered cars: innovation is ahead.

Why these mistakes? No doubt because of the habit of using a paradigm, a model of thinking about energy that knows little or nothing about the forces of substitution and recycling in its raw materials: oil, gas and coal. Indeed, if these estimates had incorporated more metallurgical industrial factors, the results would have been more convincing: “Stupidity can speak for nothing, intelligence cannot”, said de Gaulle.

These poor forecasts of future metal consumption, pushing the idea of shortages, will have to face up to another reality: in ten years’ time, the critical metals used in electric propulsion will weigh less than in a petrol or diesel-powered car.

Power of the hydrocarbon lobby

As a result, it is certain that the impact of future metals mining needed for the energy transition will be far less than anticipated, and far less than today’s mining footprint. Thanks to the future disappearance of coal, oil and gas, despite the growth of the mining cycle still tempered by cost-conscious production and consumption controlled by eco-design, substitution and recycling, the energy transition is indeed leading us towards an overall reduction in the extraction of natural resources.

Despite these obvious facts, the reference for the energy transition in this field continues to be biased attestations mixing metals and scarcity, initiated by a pro-oil lobby which was also behind the geological wokism of the “rare metals” fake news.

The rest is history. The power of this lobby not to move away from fossil fuels, but to transit away from them, was very much in evidence at the last COP 28; no doubt it will be at work again in Baku for COP 29.

However, since science sets truth as the supreme value, other media vectors will emerge and other global events will be needed to tell this truth.