Supplying the world with renewable energy will require a lot of raw materials. The good news is that when it comes to aluminum, steel and rare earth metals, there’s plenty to go around, according to a new analysis.

In the 2015 Paris Agreement, world leaders set a goal of keeping global warming below 1.5°C, and meeting that goal will require a lot of new infrastructure. The researchers found that even in the most ambitious scenarios, the world has enough supplies to supply the global grid with renewable energy. And the extraction and processing of these materials will not produce enough emissions to warm the world after international goals.

There is a catch to all this good news. While we technically have enough of the materials needed to build a renewable energy infrastructure, extracting and processing them can actually be a challenge. If we don’t do it responsibly, converting these materials into a usable form can lead to environmental damage or even human rights violations.

To better understand the material requirements for meeting climate goals, researchers looked at 17 key materials needed to produce low-emissions electricity. They calculated how much of each of these substances would be needed to create a cleaner infrastructure and compared them to estimates of how much of these resources (or the raw materials needed to produce them) are available in geological reserves. Geological reserves include all material on the planet that can be extracted economically.

Most renewable technologies require some bulk materials such as aluminum, cement and steel. But others also need special ingredients. Solar panels run on polycrylic, while wind turbines need fiberglass for blades and rare earth metals for motors.

Material requirements vary depending on what new infrastructure we’re building and how fast we’re building it. The most ambitious climate action scenarios could require nearly 2 billion tons of steel and 1.3 billion tons of cement for energy infrastructure between now and 2050.

Production of dysprosium and neodymium, rare earth metals used in wind turbine magnets, will need to quadruple over the next few decades. Solar-grade polycrystalline will be another popular commodity, with the global market projected to grow by 150% by 2050.

But for each scenario the team studied, the materials needed to keep global warming below 1.5°C are “only a fraction” of the world’s geological reserves, says Siever Wang, co-director of the Breakthrough Institute’s climate and energy group and one of the authors. of the study, which was published in the journal Joule this week.

Digging into these reserves will have consequences. Emissions impacts from mining and processing these important materials could total up to 29 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide between now and 2050, the researchers found. Most of these emissions come from polysilicon, steel and cement.

The total emissions from the extraction and processing of these materials are significant, but over the next 30 years they account for less than a year’s global emissions from fossil fuels. That upfront cost of emissions will be more than offset by savings from clean energy technologies that replace fossil fuels, Wang says. Progress in reducing emissions from heavy industry, such as steel and cement production, can also help reduce the climate impact of building renewable energy infrastructure.

This study focused only on technologies that generate electricity. It does not include all the materials that will be needed to store and use this electricity, such as batteries in electric vehicles or grid-connected storage devices.

The demand for battery materials is expected to increase until 2050. Annual production of graphite, lithium and cobalt must be increased by more than 450% compared to 2018 levels to meet the expected demand for electric vehicles and grid storage. 2020 World Bank study.

Even accounting for battery materials, the bottom line is the same, Wang says: The world’s supplies of the materials needed for clean energy infrastructure are sufficient for even the highest-demand scenarios.

It will be difficult to get them out of the ground. Increasing the production of certain materials, especially those required for batteries, will create social and environmental problems.

Silicon is used in semiconductor chips and also in solar panels.

“There is an underestimation of what needs to happen in the mining industry,” says Demetrios Papathanassiou, the World Bank’s global director for energy and mining.

Take copper for example: around 700 million tonnes of copper have been mined worldwide since we started mining thousands of years ago. We’ll need to mine another 700 million tonnes in the next three decades alone, Papathanassiou says, to meet climate targets. It’s not about the reserves: the minerals are there.

The problem is that the extraction of minerals or renewable energy sources can cause significant damage to the environment. In the western United States, for example, proposed mines for materials such as copper and lithium could force indigenous people off their lands and cause pollution.

Next is a working question. In some cases, materials today are extracted by workers under unfair or exploitative working conditions. Despite efforts to ban child labor, it is still prevalent in cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Polycrylic processing in China involved forced labor.

Figuring out how to get the materials needed to build a cleaner future without destroying people and the environment should be a major challenge in the transition to renewable energy, Papathanassiou says. “We really need to come up with solutions that provide us with the material we need in a sustainable way, and time is very short.”

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