The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions



International Energy Agency

Clean energy transitions gained momentum in 2020, despite the major economic and social disruptions caused by the pandemic. Renewable electricity defied the Covid-19 crisis with record growth, and capacity additions are on course to reach fresh heights in the coming years. Electric car sales also charged ahead, with a remarkable 40% increase in 2020 amid a sluggish global market. Dozens of countries and many leading companies have announced plans to bring their emissions down to net zero by around the middle of this century.

The growing momentum behind clean energy transitions focuses attention on the importance of clean energy supply chains, and the adequate supply of minerals in particular. Minerals have played a vital role in the rise of many of the clean energy technologies that are widely used today – from solar panels and wind turbines to electricity networks and electric vehicles. But ensuring that these and other technologies can continue to draw on sufficient mineral supplies, and therefore support the acceleration of energy transitions, is a major challenge. Debates around energy security have traditionally been associated with oil and natural gas supplies, and more recently also with electricity, but as energy transitions gather pace policy makers need to expand their horizons to include new potential hazards.

With this World Energy Outlook (WEO) special report, we aim to: explain the complex links between clean energy technologies and minerals; assess the mineral requirements under varying energy and technology scenarios; and identify the security, environmental and social implications of minerals supply for the energy transition. The report reflects the IEA’s determination to ensure it stays ahead of the curve on all aspects of energy security in a decarbonising world.

Our analysis is based on two main IEA scenarios, drawn from WEO- 2020. The Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS) charts a pathway that meets in full the world’s goals to tackle climate change in line with the Paris Agreement, improve air quality and provide access to modern energy. The SDS relies on countries and companies hitting their announced net-zero emissions targets (mostly by 2050) on time and in full, which spurs the world as a whole to reach it before 2070. The range of technologies that are required in the SDS provides an essential benchmark for our discussion throughout the report. Reaching net-zero emissions globally by 2050 would demand a dramatic extra push for the deployment of various clean energy technologies.

The other scenario we refer to in the analysis is the Stated Policies Scenario (STEPS), which provides an indication of where today’s policy measures and plans might lead the energy sector. These outcomes fall far short of the world’s shared sustainability goals. Comparison between the outcomes in these two scenarios provides an indication of the range of possible futures.


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