Climate policy demands circular strategies

11 December 2018 • 3 min reading time

A successful climate policy requires securing critical metals, for instance for the construction of solar panels and wind turbines. Renewable energy technologies have matured. The availability of critical metals is essential to the timely implementation of those technologies. That is the message of TNO and its partners at the COP24 climate conference.

The 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) is the follow-up to the Paris Climate Conference. The event is taking place in December 2018 in Katowice, Poland. The Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management is present, representing insights from TNO, HCSS, Copper8, Metabolic and Leiden University.

“The question is whether mining can meet the rapidly growing global demand for critical metals”

“The Netherlands wants to be a circular economy by 2050,” says Elmer Rietveld of TNO. “At the same time, like the rest of the European Union, we are fully committed to the energy transition, which is creating huge global demand for so-called critical metals. From silver to lesser known metals such as indium, neodymium and terbium. On the one hand, these metals are essential for the construction of solar panels and wind turbines and for use in batteries and electric vehicles. On the other hand, it is questionable whether mining can meet the rapidly growing global demand for critical metals.”

Global transition

There are quantitative targets and technical solutions for reducing CO2 emissions. Rietveld: “In our country, and around the world, solar panels and wind turbines are the cheapest form of electricity, measured over a lifetime of only 10 years. The question we want to answer at TNO is whether there are enough metals available for a worldwide energy transition. Don’t forget that emerging economies still have to build basic infrastructure like rail tracks and that new products like drones also require those critical metals. That is why we have outlined how much renewable energy production capacity needs to be built globally by 2050, what amount of metals that requires and where bottlenecks might occur.”

“We have outlined how much renewable energy production capacity needs to be built globally by 2050 and the amount of different metals that requires”

A realistic estimate on that worldwide scale requires unique expertise. “We are able to do this because we have in-house experts who work on technological innovations,” Rietveld continues. “In addition, we have developed macroeconomic models that enable us to make macroeconomic assessments at global level. That’s the model side. Of course, we are equally as keen to contribute to the solution side. To this end we have drawn up three circular economic strategies.”

Circular economic strategies

Substituting one metal for another is the first potential solution. “A new generation of wind turbines can employ magnets that use 30 percent less neodymium. However, developing technology with a more accessible metal takes a lot of time – in the region of five to fifteen years. The second solution is modular design. For example, if you can adapt a wind turbine more quickly to new technology, you extend the life span of components that are still usable. This strategy poses an economic challenge rather than a technical one.”

“Waste collection of cars and televisions is well organised, but do you leave your old smartphone in a drawer or hand it in?”

Better recycling is the third solution. “As TNO, we have an insight into the technical quality of metals that are now being recycled and into the opportunities for the next twenty years. For the time being, one hundred percent recycling is an illusion, but companies are making a significant contribution towards a fifty percent level for some metals even higher. The rate of recycling is only relevant if it replaces the need for mining from the ground. On the one hand, this presents a challenge in culture: waste collection of cars and televisions is well organised, but do you leave your old smartphone in a drawer or hand it in? The next technical challenge is to separate the components effectively at the very start of recycling end-of-life equipment, separating plastics from metals.”

Strategic renewable investment

Why is it necessary to act now? Rietveld explains: “At present, forms of renewable energy, measured over their lifetime, are cheaper than natural gas and petrol.” If we do not pay attention to circular strategies right now, an opportunity will be missed. If mining cannot meet the global demand for critical metals, they will become very expensive and we will lose the cost advantage of renewables. In fifteen years’ time, we will be asking ourselves why we did not consider the strategic renewable capital stock build-up to be business-as-usual. Because that is what monitoring metal requirements and adopting circular strategies for renewable energy capital stock should be.”

This TNO project supports the following Sustainable Development Goals

Would you like to know more?

Download the background document 'Climate action requires circular economy strategies'.


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