What are energy transition minerals and how can they unlock the clean energy age?

Ever since the first lump of coal was burned thousands of years ago, fossil fuels have played a central part in the story of humanity. But as the world transitions away from these planet-warming energy sources, demand is shifting towards a subset of minerals such as lithium, nickel and cobalt.

These energy transition minerals are essential components in many of today’s clean energy technologies, from wind turbines to electric vehicles. However, the mining and processing of transition minerals can ravage landscapes, decimate biodiversity, spew greenhouse gases, and lead to human rights abuses. There are also concerns competition for these resources could worsen geopolitical tensions.

“The world is facing a delicate balancing act,” says Ligia Noronha, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and Head of the New York office of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). “Energy transition minerals can help usher in the clean energy age and opportunities for development. But the urgency and scale of demand could also lead to exploitation, human rights violations and environmental destruction.” At the upcoming sixth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-6), delegates are expected to discuss the responsible mining and sustainable use of energy transition minerals. Ahead of those talks, here is a closer look at the promise and perils of transition minerals.

What exactly are energy transition minerals?
Transition minerals are naturally occurring substances, often found in rocks, that are ideal for use in renewable technology. Lithium, nickel and cobalt are core components of batteries, like those that power electric vehicles. Rare earth elements are part of the magnets that turn wind turbines and electric motors. Copper and aluminium are used in massive amounts in power transmission lines.

Where are energy transition minerals found?
All over the world. But a handful of countries, and companies control their extraction. China mines most rare earth materials. Indonesia extracts the most nickel. Democratic Republic of the Congo produces most of the cobalt. Many energy transition minerals are also found in a group of land-locked developing countries, some of which are among the world’s least developed countries.

Is the market for energy transition minerals growing?
Yes. Between 2017 and 2022, demand for lithium tripled, demand for nickel rose by 40 per cent, and demand for cobalt jumped by 70 per cent, according to the International Energy Agency. If the world is to fully embrace renewable energy and reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions, the use of energy transition minerals will need to increase six-fold by 2040. That would push the market value of transition minerals to over US$400 billion.

Could the extraction of energy transition minerals jumpstart economic growth in developing countries?
Yes. The market for energy transition minerals is potentially huge. With the right policies and safeguards, the extraction of these substances could kick off a new era of sustainable development, creating jobs and helping countries to reduce poverty. “For some countries, energy transition minerals could be absolutely transformative, under the right conditions,” says UNEP’s Noronha.

So, what are some of the challenges with energy transition minerals?
There are several. Some are concerned that mineral-rich developing countries will see their resources plundered. UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently warned of that prospect. “We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past with a systematic exploitation of developing countries reduced to the production of basic raw materials,” he said last year. Rights groups have warned of human rights abuses throughout the energy transition minerals industry, including at mines in developing countries. There have also been reports of forced labour at some sites.

What are the environmental concerns with the extraction of energy transition minerals?
Mining can devastate the environment if done unsustainably, leading to deforestation, water pollution and what is known as dewatering. Just to take one example, it takes 2 million litres of water to extract a single tonne of lithium. But some 50 per cent of global copper and lithium production are concentrated in areas with water scarcity.

When it comes to sourcing, producing and consuming energy transition minerals and metals, countries need long-term strategies across the value chain that protect biodiversity, safeguard local populations and landscapes, and prevent pollution. At the same time, strategies need to ensure there is benefit sharing across the value chain. This includes allowing disadvantaged and local communities to access the riches that flow from the transition minerals industry.

How can the energy transition minerals industry be made more sustainable?
First and foremost, the world needs to address the demand for minerals while limiting the environmental and social impacts associated with their production. An important strategy is to reduce the mining of virgin minerals. There are two keys to this. Firstly, renewable technology must become more efficient to allow mineral users to do more with less. Secondly, industries must find ways to use minerals longer, a process known as circularity. For example, firms should design products that can be repaired and recycled and from which metals can be recovered. This will lessen the need to mine virgin minerals.

What is UNEP doing in this sector?
UNEP is part of a UN-wide effort to ensure energy transition minerals are fairly and sustainably managed. The push was launched in 2023 at the UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries. The initiative aims to build trust, reliability, sustainability and benefit sharing into the supply chains of energy transition minerals. UNEP is supporting the transformation of these supply chains to spur longer-term sustainable development in producer countries. UNEP has also undertaken a series of wide-ranging intergovernmental consultations designed to mitigate the environmental impact of mining. That work is expected to be at the discussion table next week during UNEA-6. As well, UNEP is working with the Democratic Republic of Congo to develop a national plan for the extraction of minerals, like cobalt. The plan would focus on minimizing the environmental impact of mining and explore whether local and international institutions can help resolve conflict around mineral extraction. Finally, a 2020 UNEP-supported report by the International Resources Panel explored practical actions to improve international mining governance.

“It is vital that long-term strategies are put in place that deliver value for producer countries and communities, and build resilience in the minerals supply chain,” UNEP’s Noronha says. “Equally important is that these strategies incorporate circularity, keeping metals and minerals in the economy, and mitigating energy-transition-related pollution and biodiversity loss.”