Last month, the traditionally conservative International Energy Agency dropped a bombshell on the international fossil fuel community by calling for a “net-zero” energy system by the year 2050. The report is but the latest in a series of court decisions, shareholder movements, and investment trends that point to a serious shift away from fossil fuels.
But how will the world meet its (still growing) energy needs without fossil fuels? Switching to renewables is considered one of the most effective ways of getting to net-zero emissions by 2050. But producing the solar panels, wind turbines, and long-life lithium-ion batteries that are so critical to renewable energy is driving a commensurate surge in demand for raw materials like copper, cobalt, zinc, lithium, and rare earth metals. Prices for these and other energy transition materials have been soaring, but the processes by which they are extracted, processed, transported, and discarded entail severe social, economic, and environmental harms.