Human actions compromise accessibility of metal resources


J. Dewulf, S. Hellweg, S. Pfister, M.F. Godoy León, T. Sonderegger, C. Torres de Matos, G.A. Blengini, F. Mathieux

Apart from sustainable energy sources like wind, solar or hydropower, the energy transition urges for an expansion of the in-use-stock of raw materials for its infrastructure. The European Commission anticipates that for electric vehicle batteries and energy storage, the EU would need up to 18 times more lithium and 5 times more cobalt in 2030, and almost 60 times more lithium and 15 times more cobalt in 2050, compared to the current supply to the whole EU economy. In no way are growing demand and growing stock compatible with circular economy policies based on enhanced qualitative recycling only. An injection of metals from mining of primary resources will remain necessary to meet the growing demand and allow for the projected change. Hence, transfer of primary metals from the ecosphere to the technosphere will be essential to deliver the infrastructure through a Net Addition to the Functional Stock.

It has to be examined to what extent the energy and mobility transitions shift the climate and energy challenge into a material challenge. One heavily debated material challenge, with metals in particular, is so-called resource depletion. In other words, will future generations have sufficient natural resources to meet the demand of metals? The Life Cycle Assessment community historically used methods like ‘Abiotic Depletion Potential’, but its underlying assumptions have been heavily criticized: metals as such are not necessarily depleted or “gone” by transferring them to the technosphere as metals do not vanish. Through recent EU projects, e.g. SUPRIM (led by UGent), the scientific community understands that the concern is far more continued access to resources, rather than depletion.

This paper elaborates on the (in)accessibility concept of raw materials. It identifies six human-made actions that compromise accessibility: emitting, landfilling, tailing, downcycling, hoarding and abandoning. The paper presents a case study on cobalt in the EU, where five compromising actions make 70% of the mined cobalt inaccessible due to tailings (21.3%), landfilling (31.2%), downcycling (11.6%), dissipation (1.4%) and hoarding (4.3%); only 30% is used to expand the functional stock.

Figure: In order to supply 30 tonnes of Cobalt in the EU to expand the infrastructure at user (e.g. in batteries), 100 tonnes needs to be mined, as 70% is made inaccessible due to human actions, not in line with circularity

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