The resource challenges of moving to net carbon zero

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We have been thinking………..

New Zealand stands to benefit from the natural resource challenges demanded by a worldwide move towards green technologies. New Zealand has significant reserves of cobalt, one of the metals that will be most in demand. Our cobalt reserves are deep offshore. The worldwide demand for cobalt is set to increase by as much as 350% as car fleets go electric. This will drive up the world price of cobalt and make our cobalt reserves an extraordinarily valuable and potentially economic part of our maritime estate.

The demand for other metals and rare earths is also set to increase as a result of the green revolution: these include lithium, copper, silicon, indium, tallurium, gallium, neodymium and dysprosium.

In a 5 June report, UK scientists have identified the natural resource challenges involved in the decision to move to net carbon zero by 2050. The UK Committee on Climate Change has argued that net zero carbon is ‘necessary, feasible and cost effective’. UK scientists behind the 5 June report agree, but they point out that the move to net zero carbon has ‘huge implications for natural resources – not only to produce green technologies like electric cars – but to keep them charged’.

Extracting the ores and refining them to obtain the necessary purities will also have the effect of driving energy demand ‘sharply upwards’ in those countries which are positioned to benefit most from extracting and processing the resources involved in going green.

New Zealand could be one of those countries best positioned to benefit. It has extensive offshore deposits of manganese nodules. These nodules are rich in metals such as cobalt, nickel and copper. New Zealand also has significant numbers of underwater volcanoes and seamounts. Crusts containing cobalt and other valuable metals are found on these seamounts: indeed, the (New Zealand) Environment Foundation, based in Auckland,  notes that ‘some of the most extensive deposits of cobalt crusts in the world are found in the Pacific Ocean’.

In their report, the UK scientists support the drive towards net zero carbon but note that ‘there is a raw material cost to going green…new research and investment is urgently needed to evaluate how (best) to obtain these resources’.

The New Zealand Oceans Foundation agrees that research and investment in deepening our knowledge of ocean-based resources will be needed as a consequence of the Green revolution. We would have needed to do this anyway. It is said that we know more about the surface of Mars than we do our own seabed. The Green revolution is now accelerating and driving that need.

Any decision to benefit from our cobalt resources is of course a long way off. Much scientific and investigative work remains to be done.  And we need to  ensure that extracting these resources can be achieved without causing unintended or irreversible environmental damage. But the challenge is there and it is an exciting one that is arising from accelerating moves to a green economy here as well as overseas.

We acknowledge the assistance of Cornel de Ronde of GNS in drawing our attention to the UK report. The full text can be found at https://www.nhm.ac.uk/press-office/press-releases/leading-scientists-set-out-resource-challenge-of-meeting-net-zer.html.

Additional background material by the Environment Foundation on the availability of minerals in New Zealand is at http://www.environmentguide.org.nz/activities/minerals/.

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