Without worldwide adoption and enforcement of sustainable mining practices, demand for critical battery metals for electric vehicles threatens to disrupt water security — one of the most urgent development challenges of our time — explain Professor Lesley Warren and Rachel Wallace of the Lassonde Institute of Mining at the University of Toronto
The cost for electric vehicles can be high for the average consumer, but the belief that EVs are crucial for climate resiliency drives consumers’ willingness to pay those premium prices. How will that value proposition hold up if we consider the full implications of EVs for our planet?
These batteries offer promising future benefits in reducing greenhouse gases, but their supply chains have a profound effect on the environment today. The dramatic increase in demand for battery raw materials (copper, nickel, cobalt, lithium and more) is exacerbating one of the most urgent development challenges of our time, according to the United Nations: water security.
EVs and water are currently on a collision course, and the mining sector sits at the epicentre of this challenge. Over the next decade, while double-digit growth is expected in EVs, global water demands are predicted to exceed the current supply by 40 per cent. And EV manufacturing’s requirement for greater amounts of critical metals is expanding and shifting mining efforts to meet those growing needs with significant implications for water resources. (Recycling metals from used batteries can offset these pressures, but existing capabilities can’t and won’t satisfy market needs.)
Every drop counts
The mining industry is second only to power generation in industrial water consumption, requiring copious water for mineral extraction. In Canada alone the annual draw is equivalent to ~400,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools — a number that grows to ~2.8 million globally — each and every year. Current technologies cannot meet the growing imperative to reduce the amount of water used by mining activities and eliminate possible wastewater-associated environmental risks.
For instance, water scarcity is common to many regions where metals needed for EVs occur. Over 50 per cent of copper and lithium production takes place in high water-stress areas, particularly in South America, Australia and many African countries, where Canadian-owned companies have mine sites and operations. Without strategic industry commitment to water stewardship, the impacts on water supplies could offset or even negate the positive contributions to clean energy technologies.
Necessity is the mother of invention
Growing concerns over water’s shrinking availability, as well as the possibility of a supply crunch in essential metals and minerals are driving out-of-the-box thinking. Indeed, the mining sector is undergoing massive transformation, pivoting its priorities and demonstrating concrete action both in Canada and around the world. Examples include the Mining Association of Canada’s world-leading Towards Sustainable Mining initiative, as well as the International Council on Mining and Metals’ 10 Mining Principles.
This disruptive shift in collective C-suite priorities has opened much-needed discovery runway that can fuel development of innovative technologies to mitigate water concerns. For instance, emerging discoveries by researchers at the University of Toronto’s Lassonde Institute, partnered with Canadian and International mining companies, are breaking new ground identifying how naturally occurring microorganisms in mine wastewaters can be used as smart technologies to prevent environmental risks; increasing water-recycling efficiencies from tailings to decrease regional water supply impacts; and developing novel metal recycling capabilities to mitigate the growing need for greater mining activities.
Where do we go from here?
As policy makers continue to set aggressive targets for climate, and water risks increase, securing necessary quantities of battery metals and minerals may have major impacts on the affordability of batteries. Water stewardship is the foundation of sustainable resource extraction; increasingly expected by mining investors and shareholders alike, it provides a powerful incentive for doing the right thing, offering a distinct competitive business advantage.
Without grounding the industry’s future activities in the broader sustainability context, economic viability will be ephemeral and stakeholder participation and license will deteriorate. The business case for the mining sector is clear. As the UN Global Compact CEO Water Mandate states, water stewardship innovations and practices set the stage “to manage risks, cut costs and build trust while promoting long term water security for all.” EV producers and battery supply chain companies, as part of this planetary resource cycle, need to be part of the drive to find transformative solutions for this critical sector and protect our most critical global resource, water.
Professor Lesley Warren is the Claudette Mackay-Lassonde Chair in Mineral Engineering and Director of the Lassonde Institute of Mining at the University of Toronto.
Rachel Wallace is Associate Director, Strategy & Development, at the Lassonde Institute of Mining at the University of Toronto