Opinion: can we meet the insatiable global demand for metals for electric vehicles and clean energy in a sustainable way?

By Anthea Lacchia, UCD

There is a growing awareness in Ireland and worldwide of humanity's strain on our planet's resources, coupled with a recognition that radical change is needed if we are to prevent further climate breakdown. As we transition to a low-carbon economy - as set out in the Government's Climate Action Plan 2019 - the amount of metals needed to deliver clean energy and electricity will increase dramatically. According to World Bank 2018 estimates, global demand for lithium, graphite and nickel for electric vehicles and clean energy will rise by 965%, 383% and 108% respectively by 2050.

So how can we provide these resources for future generations in a sustainable way? Here are five avenues to look at.

(1) Supporting collaboration

The resource challenge includes both technical questions, such as how to create more efficient technologies, and societal questions, such as how to ensure the mining process is fair to the communities within which it occurs. Answering them requires collaboration across disciplines, from social science to geoscience, psychology, business and communication. Collaboration between industry, NGOs, communities, governments and academia is also essential.

From RTÉ Archives, an episode of Irish Landscape from 1968 sees David Timlin look at how decades of extracting metals, minerals, stone and fuels have left an impact on Ireland's landscape

But this is no mean feat. Associate professor in environmental psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, Dr Goda Perlaviciute researches public acceptability of energy sources, systems and policies. Perlaviciute says interdisciplinary research and collaboration, "doesn't just happen by itself. For example, managing an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary research project can take a researcher much more time investment than just a monodisciplinary project."

(2) Establishing dialogue

Understanding one another is a crucial ingredient for collaboration and providing information is not enough. If we are to truly engage with different communities about these issues, is it necessary to consider their values, emotions, perceptions and attitudes, and engage in a dialogue with them, rather than simply delivering information in order to gain acceptance.

Dr Hazel Gibson, research fellow at the University of Plymouth, pointed out that "no matter which technology you're dealing with, you hear 'why can't we make the public understand? If I could explain this better, they would agree with what we're doing'. But these questions show us there is a gap between expert and non-expert group. This non-expert group is often called the public, but there is no such thing as the public. There are many publics."

From RTÉ Archives, Breandán Ó hEithir reports for Féach on mining operations at Silvermines, Co Tipperary in 1968

(3) A shared language

Before interdisciplinary research can start, a shared language needs to be established. This requires humility, as Edmund Nickless, councillor of the International Union of Geological Sciences, explained. "One of the challenges when you have a multidisciplinary group is saying 'I didn’t quite understand that' to whoever you are talking too, because all disciplines find safety in talking in their own technical language. So, you’ve got to make time and effort to find that common ground of language."

(4) People first

Sustainable resource extraction involves giving communities decision-making power on how land is managed and how wealth from mining is shared fairly. Community engagement should be an ongoing process, with input from all stakeholders, rather than a one-off intervention.

When moving towards sustainable development goals in the context of resource governance, it has to be "a collective effort from everybody," says Dr Judy Muthuri, who researchers corporate social responsibility at Nottingham University. "When you talk about governance of resource, there is a role for every actor in society to play if the goals are to be realised. If we relegate and leave it to the corporations, there will be no sustainable community development in our lifetime". 

(5) The circular economy

CNBC Explains on the circular economy

The circular economy is an economic system that aims to extract most value out of resources and materials whilst in use. This can act as a model for the resource sector as we need to find ways of reducing demand and producing resources cleanly and efficiently, with reduced, managed and, where possible, reused waste.

"The circular economy should be the ultimate goal of everything we do," said Professor John Thompson from Cornell University, and the mine of the future will embrace the circular economy. "We want to aim for responsible mines that are clean and efficient, with reduced, managed and possibly reused waste, and we will have to accomplish this by being transparent and collaborative in all respects".

Dr Anthea Lacchia is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences (iCRAG) at UCD. The quotes in this article arose from discussions at the inaugural Researching Social Theories, Resources, and Environment (ReSToRE) International Summer School earlier this year


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ