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Clean energy demand for critical minerals set to soar as the world pursues net zero goals

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Supplies of critical minerals essential for key clean energy technologies like electric vehicles and wind turbines need to pick up sharply over the coming decades to meet the world’s climate goals, creating potential energy security hazards that governments must act now to address, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency. 

The special report, The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions, is the most comprehensive global study to date on the central importance of minerals such as copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt and rare earth elements in a secure and rapid transformation of the global energy sector. Building on the IEA’s longstanding leadership role in energy security, the report recommends six key areas of action for policy makers to ensure that critical minerals enable an accelerated transition to clean energy rather than becoming a bottleneck.

“Today, the data shows a looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realising those ambitions,” said Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA. “The challenges are not insurmountable, but governments must give clear signals about how they plan to turn their climate pledges into action. By acting now and acting together, they can significantly reduce the risks of price volatility and supply disruptions.”

“Left unaddressed, these potential vulnerabilities could make global progress towards a clean energy future slower and more costly – and therefore hamper international efforts to tackle climate change,” Dr Birol said. “This is what energy security looks like in the 21st century, and the IEA is fully committed to helping governments ensure that these hazards don’t derail the global drive to accelerate energy transitions.”

The special report, part of the IEA’s flagship World Energy Outlook series, underscores 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 onshore wind plant requires nine times more mineral resources than a similarly sized gas-fired power plant.

Demand outlooks and supply vulnerabilities vary widely by mineral, but the energy sector’s overall needs for critical minerals could increase by as much as six times by 2040, depending on how rapidly governments act to reduce emissions. Not only is this a massive increase in absolute terms, but as the costs of technologies fall, mineral inputs will account for an increasingly important part of the value of key components, making their overall costs more vulnerable to potential mineral price swings.

The commercial importance of these minerals also grow rapidly: today’s revenue from coal production is ten times larger than from energy transition minerals. However, in climate-driven scenarios, these positions are reversed well before 2040.

To produce the report, the IEA built on its detailed, technology-rich energy modelling tools to establish a unique database showing future mineral requirements under varying scenarios that span a range of levels of climate action and 11 different technology evolution pathways. In climate-driven scenarios, mineral demand for use in batteries for electric vehicles and grid storage is a major force, growing at least thirty times to 2040. The rise of low-carbon power generation to meet climate goals also means a tripling of mineral demand from this sector by 2040. Wind takes the lead, bolstered by material-intensive offshore wind. Solar PV follows closely, due to the sheer volume of capacity that is added. The expansion of electricity networks also requires a huge amount of copper and aluminium.

Unlike oil – a commodity produced around the world and traded in liquid markets – production and processing of many minerals such as lithium, cobalt and some rare earth elements are highly concentrated in a handful of countries, with the top three producers accounting for more than 75% of supplies. Complex and sometimes opaque supply chains also increase the risks that could arise from physical disruptions, trade restrictions or other developments in major producing countries. In addition, while there is no shortage of resources, the quality of available deposits is declining as the most immediately accessible resources are exploited. Producers also face the necessity of stricter environmental and social standards.

The IEA report provides six key recommendations for policy makers to foster stable supplies of critical minerals to support accelerated clean energy transitions. These include the need for governments to lay out their long-term commitments for emission reductions, which would provide the confidence needed for suppliers to invest in and expand mineral production. Governments should also promote technological advances, scale up recycling to relieve pressure on primary supplies, maintain high environmental and social standards, and strengthen international collaboration between producers and consumers.

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Action on Trade is Necessary for Businesses to Unlock Net Zero Targets

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For businesses to reach their emission targets, the global trading system needs to adapt, and businesses are calling for the change.

These are the main findings of the Delivering a Climate Trade Agenda: Industry Insights Report released today by the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Clifford Chance.

The six-month study is based on research and interviews with global companies, across sectors including transport, energy, manufacturing, and consumer goods. The objective of the research process was to identify necessary changes to the current global trade system and how to better incentivize and accelerate decarbonization. The resulting study outlines eight key actions that, if taken by governments and businesses, could make global trade a better enabler of climate action.

Sean Doherty, Head of International Trade and Investment said: “Traditionally, trade and climate policy-making has happened in separate silos. The urgency of the climate crisis calls for us to break down these silos through public-private cooperation in order to accelerate emissions reductions while achieving prosperity for all. The good news for policy makers is businesses are ready and willing to support this change.”

Jessica Gladstone, Partner at Clifford Chance said: “International trade will play a key role in achieving a just transition to a low-carbon sustainable global economy. Businesses stand ready to lead in this transition, but governments can support by ensuring the right legislative and regulatory structures are in place. Our report explores global and domestic policy actions that can create climate-friendly trade that is fair, transparent, and has technology and innovation at its core.”

Interviews revealed the following ways for trade to support businesses to decarbonize and grow sustainably:

  • Tariff reductions on key goods
  • Addressing non-tariff distortions in parallel
  • Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies
  • Building coherence around carbon-based trade policies
  • Supporting trade in digital and climate-related services
  • Encouraging climate-smart agriculture
  • Aligning trade agreements with climate commitments
  • Facilitating green investment

The chart below provides examples of how the global trading system can through continued dialogue between governments and the private sector put trade to the service of climate action.

The report includes a jointly-authored foreword by the World Trade Organization (WTO) Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Executive Secretary welcoming the insights from business. Major intergovernmental meetings will be held under both organisations in the last quarter of this year.

Business can take steps to encourage alignment of trade rules with climate action. The Forum is today launching a two-year work programme – titled Climate Trade Zero – to support public and private exchange on these issues as part of building a more sustainable trading system.

Many companies also recognized that the transition is taking place at different speeds and levels of intensity across countries and sectors. Interviewees highlighted the importance of providing support and incentives to developing countries, and to supply chain partners in developing countries, to undertake the investments necessary to reduce their emissions.

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Appliance standards and labelling is highly effective at reducing energy use

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Policies that introduce minimum efficiency performance standards and energy-consumption labelling on appliances and equipment have led to reduced power consumption, lower carbon emissions, and cost savings for consumers, according to analysis published today by the IEA and the 4E Technology Collaboration Programme (4E TCP).

The report’s findings are drawn from nearly 400 evaluation studies covering 100 countries, including those with the longest running and strongest appliance policies, such as China, European Union, Japan and the United States.

“The findings from the study are important as they provide evidence that standards and labelling are highly effective policy instruments that bring benefits to consumers as well as lower emissions and lower energy demand,” said Brian Motherway, the Head of Energy Efficiency at the IEA.

The study shows the policies have had significant positive impacts:

  • In countries with long-running policies, appliances are now typically consuming 30% less energy than they would have done otherwise.
  • In the nine countries/regions for which data were available, such programmes reduced annual electricity consumption by a total of around 1 580 terawatt-hours in 2018 – similar to the total electricity generation of wind and solar energy in those countries.
  • The programmes that have been operating the longest, such as those in the United States and the European Union, are estimated to deliver annual reductions of around 15% of their current total national electricity consumption. This percentage increases each year as more of the older, less-efficient stock is replaced with equipment that meets new higher efficiency standards.
  • These energy savings represent a significant financial boon for businesses and householders. In the United States alone, utility customers are now economising USD 60 billion each year, or USD 320 per customer.
  • Also, the United States, European Union and China together are avoiding annual CO2 emissions of more than 700 million tonnes, equivalent to the total energy-related emissions of Germany.
  • Well-designed policies encourage product innovation and lead to economies of scale, which reduces the cost of appliances even without accounting for the efficiency gains. For example, in Australia the sticker price of appliances has typically fallen 40% over the last 20 years, while average energy consumption has fallen by a third.

“The message is simple: expanding standards and energy efficiency labelling programmes makes the energy transition challenge easier, more affordable and become a reality,” said Jamie Hulan, the Chair of the 4E TCP.

The IEA will continue to collaborate with 4E TCP to enhance and promote the use of such policies. 4E TCP is an international platform for fourteen countries and the European Union to exchange technical and policy information focused on increasing the production and trade in efficient end-use equipment.

Ahead of this November’s COP26 Climate Change Conference, the IEA is working with the UK Government via the Super-Efficient Equipment and Appliance Deployment (SEAD) initiative to coordinate and improve international action on product energy efficiency. The United Kingdom is leading the COP26 Product Efficiency Call to Action, which aims to double the efficiency of key global products by 2030, initially focusing on four key energy-consuming products: air conditioners, refrigerators, lighting and industrial motors systems. The IEA is supporting the implementation of this work and helping expand the number of countries ready to make this commitment.

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Global economy projected to show fastest growth in 50 years

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The global economy is expected to bounce back this year with growth of 5.3 per cent, the fastest in nearly five decades, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

In its new report released on Wednesday, the agency said that the rebound was highly uneven along regional, sectoral and income lines, however.  

During 2022, UNCTAD expects global growth to slow to 3.6 per cent, leaving world income levels trailing some 3.7 per cent below the pre-pandemic trend line. 

The report also warns that growth deceleration could be bigger than expected, if policymakers lose their nerve or answer what it regards as misguided calls for a return to deregulation and austerity. 

Differences in growth 

The report says that, while the response saw an end to public spending constraints in many developed countries, international rules and practices have locked developing countries into pre-pandemic responses, and a semi-permanent state of economic stress. 

Many countries in the South have been hit much harder than during the global financial crisis. With a heavy debt burden, they also have less room for maneuvering their way out through public spending. 

Lack of monetary autonomy and access to vaccines are also holding many developing economies back, widening the gulf with advanced economies and threatening to usher in another “lost decade”. 

“These widening gaps, both domestic and international, are a reminder that underlying conditions, if left in place, will make resilience and growth luxuries enjoyed by fewer and fewer privileged people,” said Rebeca Grynspan, the secretary-general of UNCTAD. 

“Without bolder policies that reflect reinvigorated multilateralism, the post-pandemic recovery will lack equity, and fail to meet the challenges of our time.” 

Lessons of the pandemic 

UNCTAD includes several proposals in the report that are drawn from the lessons of the pandemic. 

They include concerted debt relief and even cancellation in some cases, a reassessment of fiscal policy, greater policy coordination and strong support for developing countries in vaccine deployment. 

Even without significant setbacks, global output will only resume its 2016-19 trend by 2030. But even before COVID-19, the income growth trend was unsatisfactory, says UNCTAD. Average annual global growth in the decade after the global financial crisis was the slowest since 1945. 

Despite a decade of massive monetary injections from leading central banks, since the 2008-9 crash, inflation targets have been missed. Even with the current strong recovery in advanced economies, there is no sign of a sustained rise in prices. 

After decades of a declining wage share, real wages in advanced countries need to rise well above productivity for a long time before a better balance between wages and profits is achieved again, according to the trade and development body’s analysis. 

Food prices and global trade 

Despite current trends on inflation, UNCTAD believes the rise in food prices could pose a serious threat to vulnerable populations in the South, already financially weakened by the health crisis. 

Globally, international trade in goods and services has recovered, after a drop of 5.6 per cent in 2020. The downturn proved less severe than had been anticipated, as trade flows in the latter part of 2020 rebounded almost as strongly as they had fallen earlier. 

The report’s modelling projections point to real growth of global trade in goods and services of 9.5 per cent in 2021. Still, the consequences of the crisis will continue to weigh on the trade performance in the years ahead. 

For director of UNCTAD’s globalization and development strategies division, Richard Kozul-Wright, “the pandemic has created an opportunity to rethink the core principles of international economic governance, a chance that was missed after the global financial crisis.” 

“In less than a year, wide-ranging US policy initiatives in the United States have begun to effect concrete change in the case of infrastructure spending and expanded social protection, financed through more progressive taxation. The next logical step is to take this approach to the multilateral level.” 

The report highlights a “possibility of a renewal of multilateralism”, pointing to the United States support of a new special drawing rights (SDR) allocation, global minimum corporate taxation, and a waiver of vaccine-related intellectual property rights.  

UNCTAD warns, though, that these proposals “will need much stronger backing from other advanced economies and the inclusion of developing country voices if the world is to tackle the excesses of hyperglobalization and the deepening environmental crisis in a timely manner.” 

For the UN agency, the biggest risk for the global economy is that “a rebound in the North will divert attention from long-needed reforms without which developing countries will remain in a weak and vulnerable position.”

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