Rare metals needed but social and environmetal issues ‘must be resolved’

Rapidly growing demand for cobalt raises ethical concerns about ‘conflict minerals’

The world has to find a way to distribute a fairer share of wealth arising from mining activities, according to Edmund Nickless of the International Union of Geological Sciences. Photograph: Marc O’Sullivan

The world has to find a way to distribute a fairer share of wealth arising from mining activities, according to Edmund Nickless of the International Union of Geological Sciences. Photograph: Marc O’Sullivan

 

The world has to find a way to distribute a fairer share of wealth arising from mining activities, according to Edmund Nickless of the International Union of Geological Sciences.

“Deposits of the metals that we need are irregularly distributed across the globe, and their value must be assessed with respect to sustainable development, alleviation of poverty and empowering of communities,” he told the inaugural Researching Social Theories, Resources, and Environment (ReSToRE) international summer school in UCD.

Renewable energy infrastructure, batteries, electric vehicles and electricity generation and transmission systems require vast amounts of mined resources. These range from copper for wires and electric motors, to lithium and cobalt for batteries, to small amounts of rare metals for solar cells.

Extraction of energy products in a usable form natural sources was inevitable over the next 40 years, but insufficient attention had been paid to locating and quantifying the minerals needed to build these technologies, said the permanent UK representative of IUGS – it represents 120 member countries and more than one million earth scientists.

The current system for mining was not always efficient; was polluting and is subject to increased social pressure and public protests, delegates were told.

The week-long event hosted by the Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences (iCRAG) is being attended by 42 early-career geologists and social scientists from developed and developing countries, who are examining how society should meet the challenge of providing water, energy and mineral resources in a sustainable way.

Consumption levels

Current consumption levels of rare metals was very high but decarbonisation and Agenda 2030 including the UN sustainable development goals (STGs), meant demand was going to increase by up 100 times depending on the metal, he said. Recycling, as being done with lead in car batteries and aluminium in tins, would not be sufficient.

The reality was that many countries, especially in Africa, would in future only allow mining if there was a realisable benefit locally. That was why the nexus of social science and geoscience “is key in ensuring that development, the environment and people are all considered as both population and resource demand continue to grow”.

While the world may be suffering from “treaty exhaustion” there was a need for a new international mechanism to coordinate global mineral exploration that looks to future supply needs, Mr Nickless said. If this did not happen, it would bring forward dates when exhaustion of critical metals would arise.

On rapidly growing demand for cobalt, he said very little was known about its occurrence. Research was needed to identify where it is and “how do we get at it”. Reliance on the world’s biggest source in the Democratic Republic of the Congo raised ethical concerns about “conflict minerals”, he accepted.

Director of iCRAG Prof Murray Hitzman said there was “not enough [COBALT]in the world to electrify the fleet in Ireland – much less the world”. As a consequence, iCRAG was trying to identify new deposits. Likewise, there was a need for a range of rare earth metals, which are mostly found in China and used in magnets deployed in wind turbines.

Sourcing

Responsible sourcing of earth resources was critical to fulfilling the STGs, he said. “As we transition to a low carbon economy, the metals, natural resources, and energy sources we need will change. iCRAG is proud to lead this confluence of geoscientists and social scientists in tackling how we will resource present and future generations in a sustainable way.”

The delegates are to consider how best to design community engagement in resource and environmental activities. “Effective interaction with local communities can facilitate shared decision-making on how land is managed to sustainably develop resources,” he added.