How to make sure critical minerals are an enabler, not a bottleneck, for clean energy transitions

Ever since the International Energy Agency was founded in 1974 in the wake of severe disruptions to global oil markets that shook the world economy, its core mission has been to foster secure and affordable energy supplies.

Today, the global energy system is in the midst of a major transition to clean energy. The efforts of an ever-expanding number of countries and companies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to net zero call for the massive deployment of a wide range of clean energy technologies, many of which in turn rely on critical minerals such as copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt and rare earth elements.

The IEA’s new special report on The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions shows that the mineral requirements of an energy system powered by clean energy technologies differ profoundly from one that runs on fossil fuels. A typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car, and an offshore wind plant requires 13 times more mineral resources than a similarly sized gas-fired power plant.

An evolving energy system calls for an evolving approach to energy security. As clean energy transitions accelerate globally and solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars are deployed on a growing scale, these rapidly growing markets for key minerals could be subject to price volatility, geopolitical influence and even disruptions to supply.

Our new special report identifies risks to key minerals and metals that – left unaddressed – could make global progress towards a clean energy future slower or more costly, and therefore hamper international efforts to tackle climate change. The IEA is determined to play a leading role in enabling governments around the world to anticipate and navigate possible disruptions and avoid damaging outcomes for our economies and our planet.

The special report is the most comprehensive global study of this subject to date, underscoring the IEA’s commitment to ensuring energy systems remain as resilient, secure and sustainable as possible. Building on the IEA’s detailed, technology-rich energy modelling tools, we have established a unique and extensive database that underpins our projections of the world’s future mineral requirements under different climate and technology scenarios. 

This is what energy security looks like in the 21st century. We must pay close attention to all potential vulnerabilities, as the IEA did in our recent series on electricity security for power systems, which covered challenges such as growing shares of variable renewables, climate resilience and cyber security.

Today’s supply and investment plans for many critical minerals fall well short of what is needed to support an accelerated deployment of solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles. Many minerals come from a small number of producers. For example, in the cases of lithium, cobalt and rare earth elements, the world’s top three producers control well over three-quarters of global output. This high geographical concentration, the long lead times to bring new mineral production on stream, the declining resource quality in some areas, and various environmental and social impacts all raise concerns around reliable and sustainable supplies of minerals to support the energy transition. 

These hazards are real, but they are surmountable. The response from policy makers and companies will determine whether critical minerals remain a vital enabler for clean energy transitions or become a bottleneck in the process. Critical minerals certainly don’t undermine the case for clean energy. For example, although mineral extraction is relatively emissions-intensive, the lifecycle emissions of EVs today are about half those of a traditional car and would fall to only a quarter with clean electricity.

Based on this special report, we identify the IEA’s six key recommendations to ensure mineral security. An essential step is for policy makers to provide clear signals about their climate ambitions and how their targets will be turned into action. Long-term visibility is essential to provide the confidence investors need to commit to new projects. Efforts to scale up investment should go hand-in-hand with a broad strategy that encompasses technology innovation, recycling, supply chain resilience and sustainability. And producers must be compelled to meet stricter environmental and social standards.

There is no shortage of resources worldwide, and there are sizeable opportunities for those who can produce minerals in a sustainable and responsible manner. Because no single country will be able to solve these issues alone, strengthened international cooperation is essential. Leveraging the IEA’s long-standing leadership in safeguarding energy security, we remain committed to helping governments, producers and consumers tackle these critical challenges.

Finally, I would like to thank the excellent team behind this ground-breaking report, led by Tae-Yoon Kim under the direction of Tim Gould, for their work in producing analysis of such high quality, and many other colleagues from across the Agency who brought their expertise to bear on this crucial topic. It is one on which the IEA will remain keenly focused in the years ahead.