For the past century, economies and geopolitics have largely been driven by our insatiable appetite for oil and fossil fuels in general. As we gradually make the transition to a low-carbon energy future, the focus on oil will shift to sustainable supplies of essential minerals and elements.
The use of solar panels, batteries, electric vehicle motors, wind turbines, and fuel cells is growing rapidly around the world. These technologies make use of cobalt, copper, lithium, cadmium, and various rare earth elements. The need for any one of these things may diminish if alternatives are found, but there will continue to be a growing reliance on multiple substances whose physical and chemical properties are essential to the function of modern devices and technologies.
In some cases, global supplies of particular minerals and elements are dominated by a particular country, are facing social and environmental conflicts, or face other market issues. Shortages of any of them could create economic problems and derail progress much as the oil-related energy crises of the past have.
The world faces challenges in managing the demand for low-carbon technology minerals as well as limiting the environmental and public health damage that might be associated with their extraction and processing. Expanded use of recycling and reuse of rare minerals will be essential.
As the relatively easy sources of these materials become exhausted, other resources will become more attractive. These include various valuable ecosystems, oceanic deposits, and even space-based reserves.
Ushering in the low-carbon future is not a simple matter and will require responsible actions by the world’s governments and industries. In undoing the damage from the oil age, we must avoid new damage from the low-carbon age.
Photo, posted March 13, 2015, courtesy of Joyce Cory via Flickr.