Jan 18·edited Jan 19

For commenters concerned with the author's and the IEA's use of net-metals, I recommend investigating the Material Flow Analysis Portal compiled and maintained by WU Vienna rather than going the 'Armchair Expert' route of trying to extrapolate rock-to-metal ratios (which can easily be off by an order of magnitude).

The MFA portal provides great context of global materials flows based on gross ore values. When put to scale, the critical minerals for the energy transition are a relatively small slice of minerals, even when scaled up as required to meet the IEAs mineral demand projections in the Sustainable Development Scenario.


Material Flow Analysis Portal data is sourced from the Global Material Flows Database of the UN International Resource Panel.

The Global Material Flows Database technical annex provides detailed descriptions of the data sources and methods used. For example page 18 explains how gross ore is calculated for metals. “Estimation of gross ore from data on net-metal contents MFA standards however require that metal extraction should be accounted for on a run-of-mine ore basis, i.e., total ore extracted for further processing and concentration.” “in cases where only data on net metal content are reported, the application of factors to compensate for lose in recovery, as well as basic ore grades (metal concentration in ore), are required in order to transform reported net metal content values into gross ore equivalents.”


2019 Global Extraction Context (Gross Ore)

Fossil Fuels 15,882,230,265 tonnes

Copper Ore 2,682,164,417 tonnes

Gold Ore 2,101,223,327 tonnes

Nickel Ore 190,546,057 tonnes

Silver Ore 164,379,430 tonnes

Manganese Ore 56,588,591 tonnes

Lithium Ore 2,281,485 tonnes

I can provide a link of the data in a spreadsheet with a more detailed breakdown that includes biomass and non-metallic minerals, if anyone is interested.

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Jan 18·edited Jan 18

Studies like the one from the IEA are all very well, but to me they indicate the need to keep resource use to a minimum required to meet the needs of everyone on the planet, which includes stringent efforts to protect the environment. This means not replacing every fossil fuel motor vehicle or other technology with its EV equivalent but looking to replace individual consumption with common or public provision. This is a political and not a technological question and requires removing the excessive wealth of a large number of people so that they do not continue to trash the planet and threaten the lives and livelihoods of the rest of us. Perhaps that can be best summed up as pursuing a path of degrowth.

I think this article underestimates the environmental effects of mineral mining. The link below says that mining creates 14 billion tonnes of tailings every year. This is the mass that should be comapred, not that of the final product. Some of the nastiest tailings come from aluminium extraction. It's odd that this article says than "aluminium is a metal, not a mineral". The same applies to cobalt, chromium, silver etc. and all metals except gold, silver, mercury, platinum etc. are not found in native form but extracted from minerals. To continue with aluminium as an example: it is extracted from the mineral bauxite and leaves very alkaline, toxic tailings. There was a devastating pollution incident involving them in Hungary a few years back. Extraction is also very energy intensive, requiring high temperatures and a lot of electrical energy. This raises the question of whether aluminium is put to good use or wasted on fripperies like soft drinks, whether production could be cut by rationing flying. This, is the kind of question that needs to be raised when challenging climate change and the biodiversity crisis. As I said above, this is about politics and only secondarily a technical issue.


Late correction: I found the link above in an academic paper and took the quote they gave of 14 billion tonnes of tailings as good coin. My bad - the figure (actually 14.9 bn tonnes) comes from copper mining alone, but is not tailings which are the waste AFTER extraction of the metal from the ore and are the most polluting part of the process. To quote "tailings are the waste materials left after the target mineral is extracted from ore. They consist of crushed rock, water, trace quantities of metals such as copper, mercury, cadmium, zinc, etc. [and] additives used in processing, such as petroleum by-products, sulfuric acid and cyanide'. This is often stored in large ponds like the one in Hungary mentioned earlier. Estimated annual production of tailings 8.85 bn tonnes, of which copper extraction generates about 40%

Along with tailings you have the amounts of earth and rock waste (72 bn tonnes annually), plus the ore-containing rock which is milled, 18 bn tonnes. The actual amount of ore that is then chemically/electrolytically treated is just over 10 bn tonnes.

I think the amount of earth/rock dug away should be a consideration when looking at environmental damage and biodiversity. I should add, that this is only for extraction of the commodities listed below. Left out are things like limestone, sand, aggregate and clay e.g. for cement, concrete, brick and glass production and for road building.

Commodities listed in the study above:



Iron Ore





Platinum Group Elements









Rare Earths


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Good piece, will be referring to this.

Question, is "number of tons mined" a good metric to compare the impact? I can imagine that different resources are mined in different ways, depending on the depth (bigger mining pits), density (adds more of tons of excavated waste), extraction method (invasive methods like fracking). Do you know if there is a meaningful difference between fossil fuels and low-carbon required minerals?

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This is very misleading, you are comparing amounts of refined metals with unrefined fossilies. Average copper ore grade is 0.65%. So, to compare apples-to-apples, we are talking about billions tonnes of raw material to be mined and processed into metals.

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You are comparing apples with fish

Fossil fuels are abundant, and we have needed lots of them to power humanity's increasing living standards, (energy is life). Coal, the worst of the lot, is abundant, easy to mine in massive volumes, and continues to power 1/3 of the world., (including steel, polysilicon for solar panels etc)

Copper, for example is now being mined out, and grades are falling, - ie down to .7%

Few new mines are being added. It takes 10+ years to bring a tier 1 mine on line, and the pipeline/cupboard is sadly bare.

Repeat for Nickle, cobalt, tin etc etc.

The costs of the metals we need for the electrification of everything are going to skyrocket, as supply will not keep up with the increased demand . Add permitting issues, nimbyism, etc we are really screwed.

Just comparing the tonnes mined is not very helpful, especially where the nature of the mining is so different. Ie oil is pumped, copper is often mined with massive open caste mines, with tailings dams, acid leaching etc .

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Nice piece, thank you for sharing. Would be interesting to get a sense for the concentrations of mined coal vs the critical transition minerals here. Then we could compare bulk rock needed to be processed in each case: this is probably more relevant for that question most people have in mind regarding how much rock needs to be dug up... thanks

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Hannah, when you say "We currently mine around 7 million tonnes of minerals for low-carbon technologies every year." does that mean 7 million tonnes of the actual minerals, i.e. once they've been refined, or is that the tonnes of earth that has to be mined/processed in order to extract those minerals? And if it's the latter, does your assessment include the full impact of that mining, e.g. land use change, etc?

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Hi Hannah, really interesting posting. Quick question: Are you including in this comparison the amount of waste material, overburden, that needs to be removed in order to extract the minerals? Many minerals are now only available in low grade ores, so you need to move tons of rock in order to extract a kilogram of metal. The material footprint (ecological rucksack) can be calculated https://wupperinst.org/en/topics/resources/calculating-resources . I would be curious about the results if you take the ecological rucksack into account.

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Have you seen Simon Michaux's study. Part 4 of a 6 part, very long report. In this part, he calculates the amount of fossil fuel energy that has to be replaced by ONE generation of renewables (their lives are 15-0 years) of various sources. Then, calculates the amount of each source and the amount each metal necessary to accomplish moving to 100% renewables. Then looks a TOTAL CURRENT GLOBAL PRODUCTION and calculates how many years' supply of each critical metal. Ready:

187 years of global copper production (all of it, worldwide)

413 years of global nickel production

9,000 years of global lithium production.

It gets a little better wity dysprosium, neodymium and a few other rare earths, but a few get worse (one 29,000 yrs). Understanding this, the idea that politicians blurt out about "net zero by 2035" and "net zero by 2040" and such are hilariously ignorant.

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This is a highly distorted and completely false narrative. The total quantity of mining of all types required to replace all ICE with EVs one time is impossible to achieve in this century.

“…189 years worth of copper production, 400 years of nickel production, 9,921 years of lithium production, 1,733 years of cobalt production, 29,113 years of germanium production, and so on, would be needed for the first 20 years of wind and solar installations. Then we would have to do it all over again. Talk about a lack of sustainability!”



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Thanks for the education, commenters all. My small contributive piece would be to note, if you somehow weren’t already aware, that hemp/cannabis is a wonderful soil phytoremediator and that its fibers are 10x stronger than graphite.

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And if we switch to nano silica based fertilizers, and stimulate diatoms in the oceans, lakes, and streams where waters are suffering nutrient and chemical pollution, we could remediate toxicity problems while locking up carbon. The food web would flourish especially in our troubled oceans. There's potential to truly shrink the footprint industry leaves on places and people.

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So helpful!

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There will need to also be changes in how we utilize biological means to lock down carbon and reduce toxicity in soil air and water. We cannot mine and machine alone, our way out of climate catastrophe. It’s a conversation very few environmentalists want to have. It’s minimally understood scientifically and biological economics aren’t as attractive to people with trans humanism and big tech always a distraction to the biological catastrophe in the works.

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Good article thanks

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