The role of critical minerals in Australia’s clean energy transition
What are critical minerals and why are they important?
18 August 2023
This blog explores the role of critical minerals mining in Australia’s clean energy transition and highlights some key principles to guide us to minimise potential social and environmental impacts.
Australia is one of the world’s largest exporters of critical minerals including lithium, cobalt and manganese, with a significant role to play in the transition to a fossil-fuel-free and renewable-powered future.
With this prominence comes important questions about the role critical minerals have in shaping the country’s sustainable path. As global demand for critical minerals continues to rise, it’s important that we approach mineral extraction, processing, use, reuse and recycling and disposal with care and responsibility.
The following blog explores the role of critical minerals mining in Australia’s clean energy transition and highlights some key principles to guide us to minimise potential social and environmental impacts.
Why are critical minerals important?
Critical minerals are essential for manufacturing various technologies that are integral to our modern world, including mobile phones, computers, banknotes, fibre-optic cables and medical equipment. These minerals are also instrumental in Australia’s transition towards clean energy, powering rechargeable batteries, electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels.
As nations unite under the landmark Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change, the commitment to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is paramount for protecting our climate, nature and humanity. By harnessing critical minerals, Australia can play its part in helping our country and the world break free from reliance on climate-destroying fossil fuels.
What role does Australia play?
Australia plays a pivotal role in the global landscape of critical minerals, as the world’s largest exporter of lithium and the third-largest producer of cobalt. Additionally, the country
produces other vital rare earth elements such as manganese, nickel and copper, as highlighted in S&P Global’s 2021 Mining By The Numbers report.
This means Australia has the potential to contribute to the climate change fight by becoming a leading exporter of materials, cutting-edge technology and valuable expertise. By harnessing these resources, the country can create a thriving clean energy industry and generate new trade and job opportunities. However, this means Australia also has a critical responsibility to ensure that the mining, processing and manufacturing of critical minerals is carried out in an environmentally and socially responsible manner.
Does clean energy mean less mining?
The short answer is yes, a clean energy future can reduce the scale and volume of mining overall.
Various studies, including the International Energy Agency’s Energy Technology Perspectives 2023 report have indicated that transitioning to a renewable energy-based economy will involve less mining and processing compared to one that is fossil fuel-based.
While fossil fuels are dug up, transported around the world, and burnt once to create energy, critical minerals can be re-used and then recycled multiple times.
To put it in perspective, approximately 15 billion tonnes of fossil fuels are currently mined and extracted each year. In contrast, the global mining of critical minerals for low-carbon energy amounted to seven million tonnes in 2020. While this amount could increase to 28 million tonnes per year according to the International Energy Agency, that equates to about 535 times less mining than under the current fossil fuelled system.
By transitioning from fossil fuel-powered energy to an all-renewable electric energy system, we have the potential to drastically reduce the need for extensive mining activities, contributing to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future.
Can we reduce the environmental and social impact?
The reality though is all mining activity can have significant negative environmental and social impacts.
To minimise these impacts, it’s crucial to reduce the overall amount of materials extracted, prioritise their use for climate solutions, maximise the utilisation of recycled materials, and ensure protection of the environment and human rights in the process.
The following guidelines outline ways in which Australia and the world must approach the use of critical minerals more responsibly:
1. Protect the rights of First Nations people
The rights of indigenous people, local communities, and the social wellbeing of workers are vital.
Securing the free, prior and informed consent of First Nations peoples before undertaking any mining activities is essential and project proponents must ensure that the benefits are shared with traditional landowners.
2. Protect biodiversity and climate hotspots
We must not repeat the same extractive model that has contributed to climate change.
Extraction should be limited to areas far away from biodiversity and climate hotspots such as High Conservation Value areas (HCVs), primary forest and Intact Forest Landscapes (IFL), High Carbon Stock forests (HCS), critical natural wetlands, including peatlands, grassland and shrubland ecosystems, and deep sea areas.
3. Say no to deep sea mining
Deep sea mining has no place in our oceans. The urgent implementation of a global moratorium on deep sea mining is crucial to conserve and protect our marine ecosystems.
Greenpeace has called on vehicle manufacturers to cease sourcing minerals from deep sea mining, and companies such as BMW, Volvo, Volkswagen, Renault and Rivian have already committed to this.
4. Adopt circular economy principles
Embracing the reuse and recycling of materials can reduce the environmental impacts of mining and extend the life cycle of materials.
While fossil fuels are burnt once, major battery inputs like lithium and copper can be recycled multiple times. By 2040, recycled materials have the potential to supply over half of the essential elements for new batteries, even with growing battery demand. Large companies with high use rates of minerals, such as electric car company Polestar, have declared their intention to transition to a closed-loop system. This approach must be scaled and accelerated.
5. Invest in innovative technologies
Governments and corporations must support research and development in, and adoption of, more efficient battery technology that reduces dependence on mined minerals.
Battery technology is already improving quickly – wind turbine and electric vehicle manufacturers have been successful in reducing the mineral content of their products year on year. According to WWF’s The Future Is Circular report, the rapid evolution of the sector is likely to lead to a significant reduction in the need for minerals per unit manufactured.
6. Reduce the demand for critical minerals
The world after a successful clean energy transition will not resemble the world we know today.
Significant reductions in the demand for critical minerals can be achieved through societal and policy changes. For example, instead of a one-for-one replacement of internal combustion engines with electric vehicles, we must focus on having fewer cars on the road by investing in affordable and accessible public transport, improving micro-mobility infrastructure, and changing societal expectations to include more shared journeys.
Greenpeace aims to foster an informed dialogue around the responsible use of critical minerals. Join us as we embark on this journey to build a cleaner, greener future for Australia and the world.