In the middle of the Ecuadorian rainforest, chainsaws suddenly roared. The crashing of falling trees echoed through the silence. 1,300 hectares of rainforest fell victim to the construction of the Mirador copper mine from 2009 to 2017. The copper is exported to China and ends up as copper foils in the anodes of battery-operated cars from Volkswagen. However, protests against the mine's construction and warnings about social and environmental risks have been ignored for years. The German automotive company declined to comment on its supply chain and copper sourcing when approached by Save the Rainforest and PowerShift, promising to internally investigate. No further communication has occurred since November 2021.

The climate crisis is a crisis of the predominant production model. The use of fossil fuels, in particular, must be drastically and promptly reduced. However, political and economic decision-makers give the impression that 'only' a transformation of existing practices is needed, and the majority of society can continue their lives with as few changes as possible, instead of initiating fundamental changes.

Many countries from which Germany imports essential industrial metals have authoritarian governments or are considered dictatorial regimes

An example is the hesitant shift in propulsion systems. Instead of limiting the challenge to individual car mobility, there needs to be a discussion about concepts for the necessary structural transformation of a shrinking automotive industry that does not rely on the sale of ever-increasing and larger cars. This 'business as usual' approach overlooks issues of justice and security. Most metallic raw materials used in Germany are imported. The import dependency on primary metals is nearly 100 percent. Many countries from which essential industrial metals are imported—such as nickel from Russia, rare earths from China, bauxite from Guinea, copper from Peru, or Lithium from Argentina—have authoritarian governments or are considered dictatorial regimes. Numerous reports highlight corruption, human rights violations, and environmental destruction in mining.

Metallic resources — a dubious source of hope

The 'business as usual' of our production model also fails to effectively address the climate crisis. The processing of primary iron ore into steel and bauxite into aluminum alone is highly energy-intensive and responsible for more than ten percent of global CO2 emissions. Here lies another contradiction: for the green transformation of the energy, transportation, and industrial sectors, metallic resources are considered central hopes in the fight against the climate crisis. They are used for so-called green technologies and are expected to reduce dependence on fossil resources.

Many institutions—from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the World Bank, the EU Commission to the German government—follow this argument. Their respective studies predict a significantly growing demand for metals. A study by the European mining association (Eurometaux) in cooperation with the University of Leuven even assumes that by 2050, more than 2,100 percent of the lithium produced in 2020 will be needed for 'clean technologies.' Huge growth leaps are also projected for cobalt (+400 percent), nickel (+168 percent), copper (+51 percent), or aluminum (+43 percent).

This prevailing discourse has given rise to a new framing for resource supply. The German government's raw material strategy from 2020 captures this well:

"With the expansion of renewable energies, the demand for many metals also increases."

From the necessity of resource supply for new technologies for climate protection, the energy transition, and electromobility, it is inferred:

"Without 'high-tech raw materials,' there will be no corresponding future technologies 'Made in Germany."

In December 2023 the European Parliament voted in favor of a Critical Raw Materials Act. The idea of such a kind of law was only presented in September 2022, when European Commission President von der Leyen addressed raw materials in her 2022 State of the European Union address: 

“Whether we talk about chips for virtual reality or cells for solar panels, the twin transitions will be fuelled by raw materials.” 

For us as civil society activists, three crucial questions arise: First, to what extent are renewable energies actually drivers for this increased demand for resources? Second, to what extent are mining and the processing of primary resources climate-neutral? That is, what contribution do these processes actually make to global warming? And third, are there really no alternatives, or is the expansion of mining primarily meant to save 'business as usual'? Additionally, the question must be answered on how global justice issues and compliance with environmental standards and human rights along supply chains can be guaranteed in the future.

Renewables are not the drivers for the rapid increase in metal usage

People have been using metals for tools, weapons, and everyday life for centuries—a civilization without the use of metals is currently inconceivable. However, the use of metallic resources has experienced a dramatic increase in recent decades. Global metal production has nearly tripled since 2000 and sextupled since 1960. More than 93.5 percent of primary raw material production—what we extract from the earth through mining—consists of iron. Aluminum follows at second place with 1.9 percent.

The global metal production has almost tripled since the year 2000 and increased sixfold since 1960.

While iron and steel are essential for renewable energies, the energy transition is not the main driver for steel consumption. The German Raw Materials Agency (DeRa), a subsidiary of the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR), estimates that by 2030, the expansion of wind turbines (for 67.3 GW of electricity) will require 7.7 million tons of steel, 130,000 tons of copper, and 80,000 tons of aluminum. For the expansion of photovoltaic systems by 2030 (for 161 GW), 10.7 million tons of steel, 1.2 million tons of aluminum, and 730,000 tons of copper will be needed.

While this raw material demand for renewable expansion seems gigantic, in 2020, 94 GW of wind turbines were installed globally, using only 0.6 percent of the globally produced steel. For the 138 GW of photovoltaic systems installed in 2020, around 0.5 percent of global steel production was utilized. In comparison, more than a quarter of all steel imports to Germany go to the automotive sector. Moreover, data of the Luxemburg Institute for Science and Technology, analysed by PowerShift show that the consumption of metallic resources in wind turbines per kilowatt-hour is only marginally higher than that of coal-fired power plants (cf. PowerShift 2023). This is because the construction of coal-fired power plants also requires large quantities of metallic building materials, including aluminum, copper, or nickel.

Are metals climate-neutral?

A more important question seems to be: Are metals actually climate-neutral? The answer is a rather clear no, on various levels. Ore mining leads to the destruction of rainforests in many regions. Levin Sources and Fauna & Flora International show in a study that mining in tropical and subtropical countries is responsible for about seven percent of deforestation. In Brazil, scientists estimate, as reported in the journal Nature Communications, that ten percent of deforestation from 2005 to 2015 is attributed to mining activities. Resource extraction is also implicated in the loss of tropical forests in West Africa, with increasing deforestation for bauxite mining in Guinea, gold in Ghana, or other resources in the region. While the EU is currently developing rules for deforestation-free supply chains, the origin of metallic resources is not considered. The destruction of forests through mining will thus continue, threatening the ability of the rainforest to act as a crucial CO2 sink.

The connection between the climate crisis and metals becomes even clearer when considering CO2 emissions. Although the mining of metallic raw materials itself is responsible for only 0.4 to 0.7 percent of global emissions, this mining would be useless without the processing of primary metals. Currently, more than ten percent of global CO2 emissions are emitted during the processing of iron ore into steel. Another two to three percent of global emissions result from processing bauxite into aluminum. In addition, emissions occur during the transportation of ores.

A research group led by the Japanese environmental scientist Takuma Watari recently demonstrated, based on life cycle assessments and material flow analyses, that the global metal usage goals and growth forecasts of the World Bank, the EU Commission, or the German government are incompatible with the two-degree climate target. They calculated that to achieve the two-degree climate goal, it would be necessary to reduce mining and, consequently, the processing of primary raw materials from 2030 onwards. They emphasize the need to significantly expand the circular economy, as materials in circular use emit significantly less CO2. It must be noted that for the crucial 1.5-degree target, mining may need to be reduced even faster, although the data for precise calculations are insufficient.

Climate protection and metals – we need a raw materials transition

At PowerShift, we advocate for a raw materials transition to reduce human rights violations and environmental catastrophes. The new scientific findings require a closer examination of the 'hot iron' of consumption reduction. Combating the climate crisis will not succeed without a reduction in the consumption of primary metals. However, this reduction must not come at the expense of phasing out fossil resources and the associated expansion of renewable energies. Renewable energies are the key to a future energy transition, and their rapid expansion is essential. As already demonstrated, they are not a significant driver of metal demand. Nevertheless, it is important to keep the goal of resource-efficient and circular production in mind.

Extensive changes are necessary in many other areas—from the transformation of mobility, including reduction targets for the number and size of cars, to a construction shift that prolongs the use of resources and incorporates their circular flow from the beginning, to the right to repair. It requires many small steps but also fundamental changes to rethink products and product design.

There is no global example where the resource demand has been reduced within a growth-oriented economic model.

From the perspective of the raw materials transition, an extensive transition in mobility is one of the most effective levers. Car mobility is resource-intensive. A new car in Germany weighs an average of 1.7 tons but remains stationary for 23 hours, and even when moving, it typically carries only 1.3 people on average. This is highly inefficient and goes against both climate and resource justice. Therefore, there is no way around the necessity of reducing metal consumption in the mobility sector by drastically reducing the number and size of cars. A first step would be to abolish company car privileges, which currently financially subsidize large and heavy cars.

Is resource-neutral growth possible?

With the economic model based on growth, we have so far been unable to decouple our resource consumption from economic growth. There is no example worldwide of reducing resource demand within a growth-oriented economic model. This means that growth models that claim to be 'green' or sustainable create a high demand for primary raw materials and thus contribute to the climate crisis, environmental destruction, and human rights violations.

If the German government now aims, as stated in the coalition agreement, to reduce resource demand, we must consider economic models independent of growth and, therefore, ownership structures. Due to the urgency of the climate crisis, humanity lacks the time to hope for absolute decoupling. Especially since there is a lack of evidence that resource-neutral growth is even possible.

There are already concepts in some niches. Sharing and borrowing instead of owning, repairing instead of discarding, regenerating instead of depleting. Because we will continue to use metallic raw materials in the future (out of necessity). However, it is within our power to make their use more sustainable. This requires an economic paradigm shift regarding resources: Metals must be obtained to a much larger extent from a sustainable circular economy. At the same time, primary resource consumption must be reduced promptly. One way to achieve this is by reducing the number and size of cars. We need to organize mobility differently and prioritize walking, cycling, and public transportation. In general, for all economic activities, fundamental changes in product design are necessary. It should be much more focused on durability, repairability, and the recovery of raw materials than it is today.

The raw materials transition will permeate all areas of our societal life and influence almost all transformation discourses

To ensure that metallic raw materials, which we will still use in the future, are obtained under the highest possible social and ecological conditions and with informed consent from local populations, societal efforts and prompt political decisions must be made. The announcement by the traffic light coalition in the coalition agreement to reduce primary resource consumption is a step in the right direction. Now it is crucial to define the concrete implementation and measurability of the goals.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of good international examples so far. The Dutch circular economy program and the Austrian Circular Economy Strategy could at least provide guidance. To increase pressure on politics, social movements and unions in Germany and Europe are also needed to more actively accompany the necessary transformation and work towards a just social balance. An exchange with social movements and those affected by mining helps understand the urgency of this transformation and demand solutions together.

Because, in the end, the data shows: Without a raw materials transition, we will not achieve climate goals. A 'business as usual' will make this planet uninhabitable for humans. Only if we manage to initiate this raw materials transition in Europe and Germany, if we address global challenges, will we be able to shape the transformation. Disruptive changes will come, but we still have the opportunity to shape them rather than be driven by them. Since the current waste of metallic resources cannot be reconciled with sustainability, the raw materials transition will permeate all areas of our societal life and influence almost all transformation discourses. We must face this responsibility here.


Disclaimer: This article is a translated version of the intervention that was originally published in German language as part of the Economists For Future Debate Series in the online magazine Makronom. Hence, some of the linked references are in German.

About the authors:

Hannah Pilgrim coordinates the nationwide network AK Rohstoffe at PowerShift.

Michael Reckordt works on raw materials transition, German and European resource policy, as well as topics related to mobility and resources at PowerShift.

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