- The [correct] title of my new book
- Net zero’s cognitive dissonance implies a reckoning
- How to claim your copy of Threat Zero today
By now, you’ve probably heard about the launch of my book, Threat Zero: The Dark Side of Going Green and How Investors Can Profit. What you might not know is that this is the wrong title… as far as I’m concerned.
I wanted to call the book “The Metallic Dissonance of Net Zero” instead. That’s because it focuses on the most important flaw in the energy transition – the number of resources needed to complete it.
You see, for net zero to work, the planet must cut its emissions radically – not just the UK or the West. If some countries succeed in cutting their emissions but others only increase theirs, the plan will fail miserably and we’ll all burn and drown simultaneously because of climate change.
But a planet-wide attempt to hit net zero requires a truly extraordinary amount of mining, refining and manufacturing of green technology and infrastructure. An impossible amount, if you ask me. Unless you’re willing to impose rationing worse than during World War II, which is unlikely to be politically viable.
But even if it weren’t impossible to mine that much, we aren’t even trying to meet this challenge. We are not ramping up mining efforts to within even a ballpark figure of what’s needed. A great deal of mining is, in fact, in decline instead.
Such a supply deterioration in the face of exploding demand should make commodity prices spike. But, for now, most countries are not taking net zero commitments very seriously. And so, the pressure on commodity prices isn’t really showing up.
Intriguingly, this also implies that big businesses and the financial markets don’t believe we’ll even attempt to reach net zero. Any reasonable response to a genuine attempt would see mining exploration skyrocket, permits to undermine sacred lands handed out like raffle tickets and mining engineers spewed out of universities like a bachelor’s degree in feminist studies are today.
But none of that is happening…
That’s why I wanted to call my book “The Metallic Dissonance of Net Zero”. It’s a reference to cognitive dissonance – the emotional discomfort you feel when your actions and your beliefs don’t match up very well. Smokers know what I’m talking about…
We’re experiencing metallic dissonance on net zero because none of the things that would be true if we were going to achieve or even try to achieve net zero are true. Our actions don’t match our commitments. Mining isn’t booming, commodity prices aren’t surging and Extinction Rebellion protestors are not changing their major to electrical engineering or studying a masters in mining.
Can you imagine…
Instead, our actions completely contradict our net zero commitments. Airports are being built, wind farms are being dismantled to get at the coal underneath and oil fields are being opened.
It just doesn’t add up. And it implies some sort of reckoning for either our beliefs about ourselves or our standard of living.
In the end, the title of my book was chosen to reflect some other awkward truths that I discovered about net zero while researching this metallic dissonance specifically. Things that scared me and should worry you.
Also, nobody knows what metallic dissonance is supposed to refer to unless you explain it… which makes it a bad book title.
But I’ll always remember my book as it once was… a simple refutation of net zero resting on physical realities, not models or assumptions about future technology.
Last week, we took a look at the Natural History Museum’s estimates for how much metal it’d take to convert the UK’s car fleet to electric vehicles (EVs). Here’s a segment from my book that follows on from that discussion and reveals just how big the metallic dissonance really is…
According to Michael Kelly, converting the US car fleet requires 20 times the world’s cobalt production, which is already a humanitarian disaster today; seven times global lithium carbonate production; and a year’s worth of global copper production.
The National History Museum goes on to specify a long list of other awkward requirements, including the same calculations on a global basis:
Based on 2018 figures, experts have worked out that for those two billion cars to be electric, annual production of neodymium and dysprosium would have to increase by 70%, copper output would need to more than double and cobalt output would need to increase at least three and a half times for the entire period from now until 2050 to satisfy the demand.
Michael Kelly in turn estimates that converting vehicles to EVs amounts to needing a tenfold increase in the production of certain key resources. It depends on the assumptions you use about how many cars we need, how much mining takes place and demand for those resources outside of EVs. For example, it would take years just to ramp up resources production to the levels presumed by the National History Museum.
Such a scale of resources production, “isn’t something that is wound up overnight,” points out Kelly. Which makes the squeeze in the final few years all the more extreme. Especially given today’s EVs and renewable energy infrastructure will need retiring by then as they end their useful lives.
Lithium, the posterchild of the renewable transition because of its battery prowess, is a good example of the challenge. According to Simon Michaux, at 2019 mining rates, it would take us 10,000 years to mine enough lithium for the first generation of electrification uses needed for the energy transition (many of which would be redundant by 2050 and need replacing).
Mark Mills did the maths on lithium for cars specifically in a different way.
So in order to replace the 5 million tonnes per day of oil for cars, if we use batteries – the very best lithium batteries – we’re going to have to increase the quantity of materials we mine each day to 50 million tonnes per day. So a tenfold increase in the physical quantity of materials in the world to shift from gasoline powered and diesel powered cars to electric cars. That’s not a great direction for the environment.
Given mining accounts for about 10% of global energy demand, a tenfold increase in mining would mean… I’m sure you can do the maths. (As we will see later in this book, the energy intensity of mining each tonne will surge as ore grades continue to decline.)
These calculations from Kelly, Michaux, the Natural History Museum and Mills do not consider what’d happen to resource prices in such a scenario, nor whether the resources could be found, mined and refined economically, in time, or at all. And remember, this is just cars, not electricity grid storage.
It is of course likely that, were such resource demand to ever eventuate, prices would make net zero cost-prohibitive anyway. Or lead to excruciating levels of inflation, as Michaux suggests in his work. But, as we’ll discuss later, that scale of mining is simply not viable anyway.
If you’d like to escape your own metallic dissonance and get your hands on the rest of the book, even if it does have the wrong title, click here.
Until next time,
Editor, Fortune & Freedom