London — The International Energy Agency has called for immediate government action to ensure the reliable, sustainable supply of critical battery minerals that are essential for clean energy technologies, with demand for electric vehicles and renewable energy expected to increase sharply over the coming decades.
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In a new report, The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions, the IEA noted the global importance of minerals such as copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt and rare earth elements for the secure and rapid transformation of the global energy sector.
IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said data in the report showed a "looming mismatch between the world's strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realizing those ambitions."
The report noted that a typical EV required a mineral input that was six times higher than a conventional car, while an onshore wind plant required nine times more mineral resources than a similarly sized gas-fired power plant.
It said that in climate-driven scenarios, mineral demand for use in batteries for EVs and grid storage was expected to grow at least thirty times to 2040.
"The challenges are not insurmountable, but governments must give clear signals about how they plan to turn their climate pledges into action. By acting now and acting together, they can significantly reduce the risks of price volatility and supply disruptions," Birol said.
He added that if these risks were left unaddressed it could slow global progress toward a clean energy future and make it more costly, hampering international efforts to tackle climate change.
"This is what energy security looks like in the 21st century, and the IEA is fully committed to helping governments ensure that these hazards don't derail the global drive to accelerate energy transitions," Birol said.
The IEA noted that the demand outlook and supply vulnerabilities varied widely by mineral, but the energy sector's overall needs for critical minerals could increase by as much as six times by 2040, depending on how rapidly governments acted to reduce emissions.
"Not only is this a massive increase in absolute terms, but as the costs of technologies fall, mineral inputs will account for an increasingly important part of the value of key components, making their overall costs more vulnerable to potential mineral price swings," it added.
The IEA pointed out that the production and processing of many minerals, such as lithium, cobalt and some rare earth elements, were highly concentrated in a handful of countries, with the top three producers accounting for more than 75% of supplies. For example, the majority of the world's cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a byproduct of copper.
This, in combination with complex and sometimes opaque supply chains, increased the possible risks from physical disruptions, trade restrictions or other developments in major producing countries.
It added that, while there was no shortage of resources, the quality of available deposits was declining as the most immediately accessible resources were exploited.
In addition, producers were also facing the necessity of stricter environmental and social standards.
Key areas for action
In the report, the IEA recommended six key areas of action for governments or policy makers to ensure that critical minerals enabled an accelerated transition to clean energy rather than becoming a bottleneck.
These include ensuring adequate investment in diversified sources of new supply; promoting technology innovation at all points along the value chain; and the enhancement of supply chain resilience and market transparency.
It also recommended mainstream higher environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards; strengthening international collaboration between producers and consumers; and the scaling up of recycling to relieve pressure on primary supplies.
"The amount of spent EV batteries reaching the end of their first life is expected to surge after 2030, at a moment of continued rapid growth in mineral demand. Recycling would not eliminate the need for continued investment in new supply to meet climate goals, but we estimate that, by 2040, recycled quantities of copper, lithium, nickel and cobalt from spent batteries could reduce combined primary supply requirements for these minerals by around 10%," the IEA said.
It added that the security benefits of recycling could be far greater for regions with wider deployment of clean energy technologies due to greater economies of scale.
The IEA said government policies could play a pivotal role in preparing for rapid growth of battery waste volumes by incentivizing recycling for products reaching the end of their operating lives, supporting efficient collection and sorting activities, and funding research and development into new recycling technologies.