Mining is the secret ingredient to realistic decarbonization

BC mines can help power an energy transition that puts people first, writes Margareta Dovgal.

Margareta Dovgal, Resource Works’ managing director.

Minerals and metals drive and enable everyday life.

I would challenge everyone to look around themselves. Unless you're in the wilderness without any clothes or supplies, you’ll see that everything you use is made from, or produced by, products and systems that use massive amounts of things that have been mined.

We need more, and here’s why.

Our current global energy system relies heavily on fossil fuels. Coal, oil and natural gas are the foundations of practically every modern comfort we enjoy today. They support how people from all walks of life worldwide can enjoy warmth, good nutrition, freedom of movement and protection from preventable illness and disease.

Billions rely on fossil fuels for heating, electricity generation, cooking and transportation. They are essential to producing plastics, cement, asphalt, fuels and fertilizer.

But we also know that these products produce carbon that enters the atmosphere when they're burned for energy. If you add up all of the emissions produced by these processes, you end up with a rapidly spiking amount of carbon in the Earth's atmosphere over the last few hundred years that has contributed toward climate change.

Mitigating and adapting to climate change, while maintaining our quality of life, is the essential task of the day. Governments around the world have committed to fairly aggressive decarbonization targets to reduce the amount of carbon that enters the atmosphere. Recognizing the role fossil fuels and modern industrialism have played both in climate change but also in our enviable quality of life, we need to find a way to make progress without self-destructing our economies.

One of the best ways we can do this is by electrifying our energy systems while simultaneously switching to lower-emissions fuels like natural gas and hydrogen.

There are limits to how quickly we can decarbonize, considering affordability constraints and human security. Pulling the plug on modernity is not a realistic solution. People need to be fed. Goods and individuals need to move around the world. And we need energy in every aspect of our everyday lives.

These realities call for climate pragmatism, not idealism or ideology in policy decisions.

In order to electrify, massive amounts of minerals and metals will be required in every system and in every process. Electrification can’t happen without the minerals and metals for the machines that generate electricity, whether through wind, hydro, solar, nuclear, or biomass, such wood pellets, or natural gas.

Mining products are also the key ingredients of the infrastructure that carries this energy to consumers across land and sea, and for the machines that consume energy from electric vehicles to LNG-fueled or electrified cargo ships.

If decarbonization dreams are to become a reality, we need far more minerals and metals than are currently produced in a given year.

We're extracting more minerals and metals than we ever have in human history, but the current output, barring huge advances in recycling, won’t be enough to meet these necessary but nevertheless incredibly ambitious emissions-reduction goals.

Canada's federal government has identified 31 critical minerals that are essential for our country's economic security and Canada’s transition to a low-carbon future.

British Columbia is rich in many of these critical minerals, including copper, nickel, cobalt and rare earth elements. BC alone produces enough copper to build over four million new electric vehicles a year.

As notes: “The red metal is a hot target as it is seen as indispensable to the global energy transition from hydrocarbons.”

Organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have actually warned that this unprecedented demand from electrification goals could lead to price spikes that could delay or even derail the pace of energy transition – to say nothing of other essential mining products such as lithium and cobalt. Faster access to minerals and metals has never been so important.

At a time of electrification urgency as we race to decarbonize, the world's copper production is geographically heavily concentrated, with about 40% of global output coming from the United States, Saudi Arabia and Russia. Some mining countries are plagued with political instability that could hinder production. Others are unfriendly or hostile actors on the world stage.

Into this mix, BC, and Canada more generally, are largely untapped repositories of energy transition minerals and metals essential to a realistic and stable decarbonization strategy. We have an opportunity to shine and not only supply our needs but the world as a whole.

And if we get this right, we'll weather the uncertainties associated with an uneven transition to net-zero – while ensuring that British Columbians and Canadians can continue to enjoy a globally competitive quality of life. 

Margareta Dovgal is the managing director at Resource Works. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn for more hot takes on natural resources and making the world a better, more secure and prosperous place.

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