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Yes, we have enough materials to power the world with renewable energy

Yes, we have enough materials to power the world with renewable energy

Yes, we have enough materials to power the world with renewable energy

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This study focused only on technologies that generate electricity. It did not include all of the materials that would be needed to store and use that electricity, such as electric vehicle batteries or grid storage.

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Demand for battery materials is expected to explode by 2050. Annual production of graphite, lithium and cobalt will need to be increased by more than 450% from 2018 levels to meet projected demand for electric cars and storage networked, according to a 2020 World Bank study.

Even when considering battery materials, the basic conclusion is the same, says Wang: the global reserves of materials needed for clean energy infrastructure are sufficient for even the most demanding scenarios.

Getting them out of the ground will be the tricky part. Increasing production of certain materials, particularly those needed for batteries, will present social and environmental challenges.

Silicon is used in semiconductor chips as well as in solar panels.

“There is an underestimation of what needs to happen in the mining sector,” says Demetrios Papathanasiou, global director for energy and extractive industries at the World Bank.

Take copper, for example: the world has mined around 700 million tons of copper since we started mining thousands of years ago. We will need to extract an additional 700 million tonnes over the next three decades, Papathanasiou says, in order to meet climate targets. It is not a question of reserves: the minerals are there.

The problem is that mining, whether for fossil fuels or for renewable energy, can cause significant environmental damage. In the western United States, for example, proposed mines for materials like copper and lithium could force indigenous peoples off their lands and cause pollution.

Then there is the question of manpower. In some cases, materials are today extracted by workers under unfair or abusive working conditions. Despite efforts to ban child labor, it is still prevalent in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The processing of polysilicon in China has been linked to forced labor.

Figuring out how to get the materials we need to build a cleaner future without destroying people or environments in the process should be a major goal of the transition to renewable energy, Papathanasiou says. “We really need to find solutions that get us the hardware we need in a sustainable way, and time is very short.”

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