May 5, 2021 - Energy & Environment

The supply crunch that could slow the climate fight

 Data: IEA; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios
Data: IEA; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Soaring amounts of key minerals used in clean energy tech are needed to fight climate change, but costs and supply risks could create big headwinds, a new International Energy Agency analysis finds.

Why it matters: "Today’s mineral supply and investment plans fall short of what is needed to transform the energy sector, raising the risk of delayed or more expensive energy transitions," IEA warns.

The big picture: Growth in solar and wind, electric vehicles, stationary battery storage and other grid technologies will require much more lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, graphite, rare earth elements and more.

  • That's especially true for clean tech deployment on a scale consistent with the goals of the Paris climate deal.
  • Though it varies by mineral, aggregate demand quadruples over two decades in IEA's "Sustainable Development Scenario." That's an energy system model that keeps temperature rise well below 2°C.
  • But new supply projects have a considerable time lag and are often accompanied by price volatility.

The intrigue: "An even faster transition, to hit net-zero [emissions] globally by 2050, would require six times more mineral inputs in 2040 than today," IEA finds.

Threat level: Rapid scale-up of clean energy could face "huge questions" about commodity reliability, availability and prices that could slow cost declines and create bottlenecks.

  • For instance, a doubling of lithium and nickel costs could offset all projected cost declines from a doubling of battery production.
  • "[I]n a scenario consistent with climate goals, expected supply from existing mines and projects under construction is estimated to meet only half of projected lithium and cobalt requirements and 80% of copper needs by 2030," IEA said.
 Data: IEA; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios
Data: IEA; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Another part of the new IEA report shows the geographic concentration of mineral production and processing — as you can see it's very different than fossil fuel distribution.

  • "High levels of concentration, compounded by complex supply chains, increase the risks that could arise from physical disruption, trade restrictions or other developments in major producing countries," IEA notes.

What they're saying: The report recommends steps around supply chain diversification and new development in countries with untapped resources.

  • Another idea: "Voluntary strategic stockpiling can in some cases help countries weather short-term supply disruptions." Bloomberg has more.

What's next: The report offers recommendations for bolstering supply and reliability while addressing the environmental footprint of mining.

  • Some of it is chicken and egg — "strong signals" from policymakers about tackling climate change will drive supply investment.
  • IEA also calls for enhanced R&D to help use materials more efficiently and find substitutes.
  • The report also recommends more efforts around recycling and stronger environmental and human rights standards that reward responsible suppliers.

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