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Are we doing enough to replenish critical mineral reserves?

The answer to that question depends on what you consider to be ‘enough’.

In a article published last week, Frik Els postulated that “The 19 million tonnes of additional copper that need to be delivered for net-zero 2050 implies a new [mine the size of] La Escondida must be discovered and enter production every year for the next 20 years.”

It doesn’t take a genius to look at the project pipelines of tier one miners and see that, currently, there aren’t enough significant projects at the right stage of development to plug this supply gap.

According to the, inspiringly named, although rather depressing, COP26 briefing from Wood Mackenzie on which the above article is based, ‘Mission impossible: supplying the base metals for accelerated decarbonization’: “Delivering the base metals to meet accelerated energy transition 2 [degree] and 1.5 [degree] pathways strains project delivery beyond breaking point from people and plant to financing and permitting”. 

Here are some other, not so fun facts, plucked from the report:

  • To hit the 1.5°C or lower target set out in the Paris Agreement, a five-fold increase in base metal supply would be needed.
  • Even a 2.5°C energy transition would require metal supply to increase by 2.5 times.
  • To keep global warming below 2.5°C, US$0.5 trillion will need to be invested in mining and metals over the next 20 years. 
  • To keep global warming below 1.5°C would require quadruple that, ~US$2 trillion

The author’s verdict? “Supply requirements are impossible”.

They are impossible to meet with current permitting and development processes. To, quite literally, dig humanity out of this hole will require an integrated and transformative approach to metal supply. 

That includes more efficient mineral exploration techniques (some of which we will cover on The Intelligent Miner this month), rapid development of much smaller, complex deposits by different types of companies, novel mining techniques to extract reserves that were previously uneconomic, reprocessing of waste that holds residual metals, and recycling of metals that are currently in circulation.

But, most of all, we need collaboration and partnership with governments. We need to work together to educate the masses, to help them understand the role that the mining and metals industry must play in the energy transition. Because without the correct level of investment and support, these changes simply will not happen. 

If UN Secretary-General, António Guterres’, remarks at COP26 on November 1, are anything to go by, I would say that most people aren’t ready for that yet.

“It’s time to say ‘enough’,” he told leaders. “Enough of burning and drilling and mining our way deeper. We are digging our own graves.”

I’d like to hear Mr. Guterres’ alternative proposal to source the metals that will enable the green energy transition.


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Reading list
Eight of the most interesting articles I've read on mineral exploration 
PDAC: Innovation in mineral exploration 
This report from the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) report interviews people working in mineral exploration in Canada to develop case histories around specific innovations
CSIRO: Making decisions easier
This article explores some of the projects CSIRO has in the commercialisation pipeline for data-informed decision making, such as the Geophysics Processing Toolkit (GPT) and the Rosetta software platform
McKinsey: How artificial intelligence can improve resilience in mineral processing during uncertain times
The headline really says it all – in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the companies that took steps to harness the power of AI improved their agility and operational resilience
NS Energy: Data analysis in the changing face of mineral exploration
This piece examines how artificial intelligence programmes and data analysis technology are poised to replace more traditional methods of geology and mineral exploration
Mining Technology: On the hunt: the new technologies changing mineral exploration
This feature article profiles some of the most exciting exploration technologies the sector is investing in, from chemical research to reusable waste deposits
E&MJ: Exploration Game Changers
An article looking at techniques such as machine learning, hydrogeochemistry and SQUIDs that are increasing the speed and success of mineral exploration
The Intelligent Miner: Machine learning for mineral exploration
Unearthed's Holly Bridgwater explores how machine learning could disrupt mineral exploration as we know it, allowing industry to leverage data science to its full potential at a time when significant new mineral discoveries are becoming more and more rare
CIM Magazine: Data crunchers, not decision-makers
This article explains how AI and machine learning are useful tools that provide valuable information, but they are not going to make geologists obsolete
Last month on The Intelligent Miner
We explored going deeper with data, and discussed mental health
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