A Fossil Fuel Economy Requires 535x More Mining Than a Clean Energy Economy
Transitioning to clean energy would reduce the volume and harm of mining dramatically
Decarbonizing the world’s economy will require an enormous amount of minerals like copper, lithium, nickel and cobalt. Everything from electric vehicles to solar panels to transmission lines will require these raw materials.
In some cases, mining these minerals has disastrous consequences for workers, indigenous communities, and the environment. This has led some clean energy skeptics to argue that decarbonization will be bad for both humans and the environment.
But transitioning to clean energy will mean we no longer have to mine and extract vast quantities of fossil fuels each year. A clean energy transition will help us avoid the worst effects of climate change; it will save millions of lives currently lost to air pollution each year; and, importantly, it will reduce the total amount of environmentally and socially harmful mining each year.
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In 2020, 7 million tons of minerals were mined globally for low-carbon energy, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). (These are often referred to as “transition minerals.”) In order to limit warming to 2 degrees celsius, we’ll need to scale up that production to about 28 million tons per year.
That’s a lot of transition minerals. But how does it compare to the mining and extraction of today’s fossil fuel economy?
Every year, about 15 billion tons of fossil fuels are mined and extracted. That’s about 535 times more mining than a clean energy economy would require in 2040.
Part of the reason for this massive difference in mining requirements is the fact that fossil fuel infrastructure is much less energy efficient than clean energy technology. Gas-powered cars are three times less efficient than electric vehicles. Gas furnaces are three to four times less efficient than heat pumps. Coal, oil, and gas all need to be transported long distances from mine or well to the source of combustion.
A clean energy economy just requires much less energy than a fossil fuel economy.
But there’s another important reason for this difference. Fossil fuel infrastructure requires constant fuel input. Building a coal or gas power plant, like building a wind or solar project, requires a lot of materials and energy input upfront. But for a fossil fuel power plant, construction is just the beginning. In order to generate power, you need to burn coal or gas every day for decades. Wind and solar projects, by comparison, don’t require any ongoing fuel input.
Still, both the environmental and human impacts of mining minerals for the energy transition can’t be ignored. Policymakers should use every tool available to both minimize the total amount of clean energy minerals needed in the future and ensure those minerals are mined in socially and environmentally-friendly ways.
But make no mistake: transitioning away from fossil fuels is one of the most effective ways to protect both the environment and the most marginalized communities in the world.
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Notes and sources
This post was inspired by Hannah Ritchie’s article on the same topic. I highly recommend subscribing to her newsletter.
My transition mineral mining data comes from the International Energy Agency’s 2020 report on the topic.
My data on fossil fuel extraction and mining comes from the U.S. Energy Information Agency. Here’s the data for coal, oil, and natural gas.
I used the same conversions as Hannah, which you can find in her post if you want to dig deeper into the numbers.
This is great, thanks Michael. Going a step further than looking at sheer volume of fossil fuel extraction compared to renewable resources extracted, I'd be curious as to compare the actual area of disruption of the earth's surface (km2) by fossil fuel vs renewable extraction, and take into account social/geographical vulnerability as an added layer.
Michael, thank you for your article and Twitter thread on this important topic. I love your visualization. I wonder if anyone will scroll to the end to see these comments;)
I commented on Hannah Ritchie’s article with this same information, but I figured it would be good to have it here for those that are interested in this topic.
There always seems to be an endless horde of energy transition skeptics on Twitter that criticize the use of net-metals rather than gross ore in these comparisons. For those that want to dive deeper I recommend investigating the Material Flow Analysis Portal compiled and maintained by WU Vienna rather than trying to extrapolate rock-to-metal ratios (which can easily be off by an order of magnitude). Even when gross ore values are utilized, fossil fuel extraction dwarfs metal extraction.
The MFA portal provides great context of global materials flows based on gross ore values. When put to scale, the critical minerals for the energy transition are a relatively small slice of minerals, even when scaled up as required to meet the IEAs mineral demand projections in the Sustainable Development Scenario.
Material Flow Analysis Portal data is sourced from the Global Material Flows Database of the UN International Resource Panel.
The Global Material Flows Database technical annex provides detailed descriptions of the data sources and methods used. For example page 18 explains how gross ore is calculated for metals. “Estimation of gross ore from data on net-metal contents MFA standards however require that metal extraction should be accounted for on a run-of-mine ore basis, i.e., total ore extracted for further processing and concentration.” “in cases where only data on net metal content are reported, the application of factors to compensate for lose in recovery, as well as basic ore grades (metal concentration in ore), are required in order to transform reported net metal content values into gross ore equivalents.”
2019 Global Extraction Context (Gross Ore)
Fossil Fuels 15,882,230,265 tonnes
Copper Ore 2,682,164,417 tonnes
Gold Ore 2,101,223,327 tonnes
Nickel Ore 190,546,057 tonnes
Silver Ore 164,379,430 tonnes
Manganese Ore 56,588,591 tonnes
Lithium Ore 2,281,485 tonnes
I can provide a link of the data in a spreadsheet with a more detailed breakdown that includes biomass and non-metallic minerals, if anyone is interested.