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Andy Nguyen
By Andy Nguyen February 27, 2023

Reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 would require major increase in mined materials

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  • An oft-cited goal to combat climate change is to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 
  • Mining experts said reaching that goal would require a significant increase in the minerals produced globally. 
  • Depending on the mineral, production would need to increase three to five times in the next several decades to meet the 2050 deadline.

President Joe Biden’s administration wants the United States to eventually reach net-zero emissions by transitioning to renewable energy sources and encouraging motorists to adopt electric cars. But a fossil fuels advocate says it's a goal far out of reach.

During a Jan. 31 Fox Business segment, Alex Epstein, president of the Center for Industrial Progress, a for-profit California-based think tank that favors fossil fuels, claimed the "green energy movement" supported by Biden is a scam. He said it would require a sharp increase in mining projects for the minerals used in renewable energy technology, such as rechargeable batteries.

"The whole green energy agenda involves more than doubling more than 10 types of mining, and that has never happened in economic history in one industry," Epstein said. 

A video of his interview was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)

Mining experts told PolitiFact that Epstein’s remarks are mostly accurate — with some caveats.

Epstein didn’t mention the year when the U.S. hopes to reach net-zero emissions or list any of the minerals mined for renewable energy technology. 

Net-zero refers to the point where greenhouse gases released are in balance with the amount removed from the atmosphere. According to the United Nations, global greenhouse gas emissions would need to reach net-zero by 2050 to prevent temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-Industrial Revolution levels

Kray Luxbacher, head of the University of Arizona’s Mining and Geological Engineering department, said doubling more than 10 types of mining wouldn’t be implausible for the mineral requirements needed to reach net-zero emissions by 2040 or 2050. 

Luxbacher cited a report from the International Energy Agency featuring a list of nine minerals, their use in clean energy technology and their overall importance to that technology. Listed minerals include copper, nickel, lithium, zinc and aluminum. 

"For some minerals far more than doubling of production will be required (to reach net-zero) … even using more conservative sustainable development scenarios," she said. 

Scott Dunbar, a professor and department head of the University of British Columbia’s Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining and Engineering, said Epstein’s remarks are an underestimate.

In the case of copper, global production would need to be increased by as much as five times from where it is now by 2050. 

Dunbar said that’s just for wiring alone in electrical components as copper is highly conductive, allowing electricity to flow through easily. 

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Global demand for these materials is rising outside of the transition to renewable energy because of economic, population and urbanization growth, Dunbar said.

Around 21 million tons of copper are mined annually. By 2050, it would need to rise to 60 million tons each year to meet the demands caused by economic, population and urbanization growth alone, Dunbar said. If 70% of the world’s electricity comes from renewable sources in 2050, 100 million tons of copper will be required. 

"It’s a staggering amount that some people say it’s going to be impossible," Dunbar said. "It takes 10 to 15 years to get a copper mine into production, so there’s going to have to be big changes in the way we do things to satisfy that demand."

Around 2 million to 3 million tons of nickel are mined annually and a vital component in electric car batteries. Reaching the 2050 net-zero goal would require around 5 million tons to be mined, Dunbar said.  

To add 2 billion electric cars worldwide by 2050 would require more than 12 million tons of nickel, Dunbar said.

PolitiFact reached out to Epstein to see if he could provide evidence of his claim. He cited a separate report from the International Energy Agency, which said the "(clean) energy transition requires substantial quantities of critical minerals" that would need to grow almost sevenfold between 2020 and 2030 to meet the 2050 net-zero goal.

Dunbar said current mining deposits don’t contain enough minerals to meet the demand to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. He said it's possible to get the minerals by mining deeper in the Earth than what’s done now, but that would expend a lot of energy and go against the desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

New technologies could emerge before 2050 to address the issue, but it could take years before it’s a reality.

"It’s a problem occupying a lot of people in the mining industry right now — how are we going to satisfy this demand," Dunbar said. "Nobody knows. It keeps our minds busy." 

Our ruling

Epstein said the transition to green energy would involve "more than doubling 10 types of mining."

Mining experts said Epstein’s comments were roughly accurate, though they were not qualified with a timeline. 

The estimates for mineral demands in green energy technology are based on a push to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. That goal requires a dramatic rise in mineral production and varies by the mineral, with some requiring more than three to five times what’s being produced now. 

Even without the transition to green energy, mineral production would still need to rise dramatically to meet the demand caused by economic, population and urbanization growth.

We rate this claim Mostly True. 

Our Sources

Fox Business, "Alex Epstein: The green energy movement is a scam" (archive), Jan. 31, 2023

Foreign Affairs, Why America Must Lead Again, March 2020

Industrial Progress, About, accessed Feb. 21, 2023

United Nations, For a livable climate: Net-zero commitments must be backed by credible action, accessed Feb. 21, 2023

Email with Kray Luxbacher, department head of Mining and Geological Engineering at the University of Arizona, Feb. 16, 2023

International Energy Agency, "Mineral requirements for clean energy transitions," May 2021

Interview with Scott Dunbar, professor and department head of the Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering at the University of British Columbia, Feb. 17, 2023

Email with Alex Epstein, president and founder of Industrial Progress, Feb. 22, 2023

International Energy Agency, "Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector," May 2021

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