Is overconsumption the ‘elephant in the room’ in the energy transition?

With ‘green energy’ technologies promoted as the panacea for climate change, and in view of the threats on society and environment associated with the mining of transition minerals, should a shift away from overconsumption and towards the circular economy be considered as an alternative solution to combat climate change?

Eric Bisil's picture
Insight by 
Eric Bisil
Associate in IIED’s Natural Resources research group
09 May 2024
An open-cast mine

Aerial view of the cobalt mine adjacent to housing in the town of Kolwezi in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo: copyright Paulin Malilo)

As the energy transition increases the demand for critical energy transition minerals, many governments in mineral-rich countries are looking to seize opportunities for industrialisation.

Meanwhile, artisanal miners in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are seeking a better deal through devoted zones where artisans can conduct their activities in compliance with environmental standards, and fetch a higher price for their cobalt, one of the transition minerals. 

But it is also clear that the search for transition minerals is accelerating extraction and that this poses significant social and environmental problems.

Saving the planet at any price?

Mining is a  significant driver of deforestation. Not only do mines clear native forests, they often establish new infrastructure too, which indirectly opens up access to land and further clearing. The extraction and primary processing of metals and other minerals is also responsible for 26% of carbon emissions and 20% of the health impacts linked to atmospheric pollution.

Since transition minerals are essential components of renewable technologies, meeting global demand for them will mean consuming more minerals in the next generation than in the last 70,000 years (in French).

We are going to consume more minerals in the next generation than in the last 70,000 years

A future where mining is even more prevalent than it is today has also raised concerns about human rights, as mining operations are often associated with rights violations, lack of transparency and unequal sharing of benefits at the local level.

Conscious of these challenges, civil society organisations such as Afrewatch in the DRC and continental institutions such as the African Minerals Development Center are calling on mineral-rich countries and countries in need of transition minerals to take effective measures to ensure a just energy transition that minimises and manages negative impacts, shares benefits and respects the voices of marginalised people affected by mining operations. 

At the global level, the World Bank launched a Climate-Smart Mining Fund to help developing countries and emerging economies implement more sustainable practices to address the heavy carbon footprint of mining. 

In the private sector, some mining companies have begun to take steps to reduce their environmental footprint through investment in technologies mostly based on renewable energy and energy storage systems, the development of which also requires critical energy transition minerals. 

Meanwhile, scope for recycling minerals is severely limited by challenges around the availability of recyclable products and the technological efficiency required to meet the needs of the sector. Even in the most optimistic scenarios, recycling would not eliminate the need for continued investment in new supplies of critical minerals. 

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2021 report estimates that, by 2040, quantities of recycled copper, lithium, nickel and cobalt from spent batteries could reduce primary supply requirements for these minerals by just 10%.

It is clear that for now, green technology solutions to global warming cannot do without transition minerals, which need to be either extracted or recycled.

Can reduced consumption and a circular economy address global warming?

A study published in 2015 found that the production and use of household goods and services were responsible for 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Technology can expand energy efficiency measures to help combat climate change, but fundamentally addressing the problem requires questioning current consumption patterns. 

According to the authors of an article published in 2020, “consumption (and to a lesser extent population) growth have mostly outrun any beneficial effects of changes in technology over the past few decades.”

A critical report from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation published in 2021 argues that developing a circular economy is a compelling strategy for achieving climate goals. A circular economy goes way beyond reducing emissions from our linear economy where we buy products that are based on the extraction of raw materials, use them, then throw them away.

The approach outlines a more systemic response to the global warming, both cutting emissions and increasing resilience to its adverse consequences. It also aligns with other goals such as creating more liveable cities, distributing value more widely in the economy and stimulating innovation.

These characteristics make circular economy approaches a powerful strategy towards carbon-free prosperity. But why has so little attention been given to the circular economy as a solution to global warming? 

Perhaps because the concept fundamentally challenges the way we live. Though only a few years ago, the idea of replacing fossil fuels was seen as impossible, and now the idea is widely accepted.

The climate emergency requires humanity to take bold decisions to reverse consumption patterns and practices that threaten to unbalance the climatic equilibrium. We need the courage to explore all solutions, even those that require drastic changes in lifestyles. 

Human survival depends on it. Voices are rising in this direction, and we can only hope they will be loud enough to ensure that overconsumption and the circular economy are high on the agenda at the next global climate meetings.