If you had a tonne of ore from a gold mine, and a tonne of iPhones, which one do you think is more likely to contain more gold or silver?
The answer might be surprising, as in both cases it's the devices that are richer in precious metals.
The medals for all Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic games came from recycled e-waste.
We use metals like silver, gold, palladium, copper, aluminium and rare earths, such as neodymium, abundantly in order to make phones, computers, electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels, etc. Many inventions which support our greenest technologies come from mining.
Where will we get all those metals to satisfy our future needs, and more importantly do we have enough of them?
Scientists warn if we want to avoid catastrophic irreversible impacts on our environment we need to get to net-zero emissions globally by 2050, ideally, well before then.
The US aims to have its electricity sector “carbon-pollution free” by 2035 and has already started to work on many clean energy projects to meet these projections.
The car industry plans to transition to 100% electric vehicles by 2050.
However, currently, less than 9% of sold cars are electric.
The use of renewable energies and electric vehicles is expected to significantly rise as the world tries to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. All these technologies make great use of minerals and metals. This raises other questions, such as whether we have enough of those metals to cover our needs or if mining them may have a serious impact on our environment. Greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts of extraction are important considerations for our green future.
The World Bank report warns that we might not meet the “Sustainable Development Goals" if we don’t manage our supplies well.
Moreover, global ore quality is declining over time and mining requires more ore excavation than before to get the same amount of metals and minerals. This means more mine waste and greenhouse gas emissions.
In China and Mongolia, rare-earth mining has left behind toxic dams and evaporation ponds. In some cases, they have overflowed into groundwaters and waters. There are significant reserves in Australia as well and even though Australia has stricter environmental compliance rules, it is far off from ideal.
If mining of rare earths and other metals is going to expand in Australia, Dr. Lebre said the industry as a whole needs to improve its environmental impact. The environmental impacts are quite high in poorer countries but also developed countries have to improve their management and environmental impact.
However, if we are replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy even though it uses metals and minerals extensively, it offers a clear opportunity to reduce environmental pollution, because the CO2 released in the environment will still be much less. The environmental impact of different ways of mining can vary, some are more damaging to the environment and some are less.
Moreover, the mining industry is changing as well and it is not as environmentally damaging as it used to be. The new technologies emerging in the mining industry are helping its transition towards more sustainable operations.