The worldwide extraction of raw materials is expected to increase 60% by 2060 and could massively exacerbate climate change, the UN’s Global Resource Outlook report finds.
The extraction of natural resources, spurred on in part by the energy transition, is responsible for 60% of global heating activity, including land use change, and 40% of air pollution. More than 90% of global water shortages and land-related biodiversity loss is also caused by the mining sector, the UN analysis, currently unpublished but seen by the Guardian, finds.
Last week, a presentation made to EU ministers, held ahead of the five-yearly report’s publication later this month, said that natural resource extraction has surged 400% since 1970 due to industrialisation, urbanisation and population growth.
Janez Potočnik, a former European Commissioner and a co-chair of the UN panel that produced the analysis, told the Guardian a gouging of raw materials on the scale predicted would almost certainly trigger more frequent and severe storms, droughts and other extreme weather and climate disasters.
“Higher figures mean higher impacts,” he said. “In essence, there are no more safe spaces on Earth. We are already out of our safe operating space and if these trends continue, things will get worse. Extreme weather events will simply become much more frequent and that will have ever more serious financial and human costs.”
The report will propose action to reduce overall extraction and consumption of critical raw materials. This is expected to impact the development of clean energy technologies, which typically require large amounts of critical minerals.
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For example, electric vehicles (EVs) use almost ten-times more critical raw materials than internal combustion engine cars. As global investment in and uptake of EVs soars in line with national and international net-zero plans, mining for the minerals required for batteries and other components is expected to increase sixfold within the next 15 years.
Despite the carbon-intensive mining required to meet demand for energy transition minerals, research often concludes that overall, the use of EVs is still far less polluting than the use of fossil fuel-powered vehicles. According to a study published on Thursday by Germany’s Federal Environment Agency, electric cars registered in 2020 were approximately 40% more climate-friendly than cars with gasoline engines.
“Decarbonisation without decoupling economic growth and well-being from resource use and environmental impacts is not a convincing answer and the currently prevailing focus on cleaning the supply side needs to be complemented with demand-side measures,” Potočnik said.
The report will suggest that options such as more remote working, better local services and low-carbon transport options such as bikes and trains can be as effective as ramped up EV production in meeting people’s mobility needs, with less harmful environmental impacts.
Zakia Khattabi, the Climate and Environment Minister for Belgium, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, told the Guardian: “Resource use is a main driver of the triple crisis of climate, biodiversity and pollution. Reducing our resource consumption is essential to minimise those interconnected environmental pressures. Future EU policies on the circular economy need a stronger focus on demand-side measures as well as on a just transition in order to address this.”