MAC: Mines and Communities

When in Rome, do as the Club proposes?

Published by MAC on 2014-06-14

Scientists from The Club of Rome have returned to examine "the limits to growth" which some of them first addressed 42 years ago in a classic eponymous study.

In the boldly-titled report "Extracted - How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet", they broadly conclude that, within the lifespan of most inhabitants of our planet, many critical minerals will have become exhausted. And others will be too expensive to recover.

The warning bells have been sounded. Though not unique nor unprecented (as Nafeez Ahmed points out in the second article below), the report carries considerable scientific weight.

The question is: what to do now? As with recent reports from by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), such dire predictions are easily ignored by governments which have the power to enforce change.

In the case of "Extracted..." there is no single remedy offered, apart from the need to recycle and re-use metals, and  substitute one for another.

That's a "no-brainer" which global mining companies already espouse, at least in theory. Now - like it or not -  we should await what they have to say in response to this report.

That prospect isn't particularly hopeful. As Tim Treadgold wrote in the 13 June 2014 Mining Journal, the industry's vade mecum, when addressing his peers both as diggers and investors:

"What is happening today in the mining world is a worrying trend of companies mining as much ore as possibe from exisiting deposits, processing it as efficiently as possible, and hoping that either something fresh turns up to replace what's been eaten...or that a handy takeover target appears".

[Comment by Nostromo Research]

Exhaustion of cheap mineral resources is terraforming Earth - scientific report

Soaring costs of resource extraction require transition to post-industrial 'circular economy' to avoid collapse


5 June 2014

A new landmark scientific report drawing on the work of the world's leading mineral experts forecasts that industrial civilisation's extraction of critical minerals and fossil fuel resources is reaching the limits of economic feasibility, and could lead to a collapse of key infrastructures unless new ways to manage resources are implemented.

The peer-reviewed study - the 33rd Report to the Club of Rome - is authored by Prof Ugo Bardi of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Florence, where he teaches physical chemistry. It includes specialist contributions from fifteen senior scientists and experts across the fields of geology, agriculture, energy, physics, economics, geography, transport, ecology, industrial ecology, and biology, among others.

The Club of Rome is a Swiss-based global think tank founded in 1968 consisting of current and former heads of state, UN bureaucrats, government officials, diplomats, scientists, economists and business leaders.

Its latest report, to be released on 12th June, conducts a comprehensive overview of the history and evolution of mining, and argues that the increasing costs of mineral extraction due to pollution, waste, and depletion of low-cost sources will eventually make the present structure of industrial civilisation unsustainable.

Much of the report's focus is on the concept of Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI), which measures the amount of energy needed to extract resources. While making clear that "we are not running out of any mineral," the report finds that "extraction is becoming more and more difficult as the easy ores are depleted. More energy is needed to maintain past production rates, and even more is needed to increase them." As a consequence, despite large quantities of remaining mineral reserves:

"The production of many mineral commodities appears to be on the verge of decline... we may be going through a century-long cycle that will lead to the disappearance of mining as we know it."

The last decade has seen the world shift to more expensive and difficult to extract fossil fuel resources, in the form of unconventional forms of oil and gas, which have much lower levels of EROEI than conventional oil. Even with technological breakthroughs in fracking and associated drilling techniques, this trend is unlikely to reverse significantly.

A former senior executive in Australia's oil, gas and coal industry, Ian Dunlop, describes in the report how fracking can raise production "rapidly to a peak, but it then declines rapidly, too, often by 80 to 95 percent over the first three years." This means that often "several thousand wells" are needed for a single shale play to provide "a return on investment."

The average EROEI to run "industrial society as we know it" is about 8 to 10. Shale oil and gas, tar sands, and coal seam gas are all "at, or below, that level if their full costs are accounted for... Thus fracking, in energy terms, will not provide a source on which to develop sustainable global society."

The Club of Rome report also applies the EROEI analysis to extraction of coal and uranium. World coal production will peak by 2050 latest, and could peak as early as 2020. US coal production has already peaked, and future production will be determined largely by China. But rising domestic demand from the latter, and from India, could generate higher prices and shortages in the near future: "Therefore, there is definitely no scope for substituting for oil and gas with coal."

As for global uranium supplies, the report says that current uranium production from mines is already insufficient to fuel existing nuclear reactors, a gap being filled by recovery of uranium military stockpiles and old nuclear warheads. While the production gap could be closed at current levels of demand, a worldwide expansion of nuclear power would be unsustainable due to "gigantic investments" needed.

Report contributor Michael Dittmar, a nuclear physicist at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, argues that despite large quantities of uranium in the Earth's crust, only a "limited numbers of deposits" are "concentrated enough to be profitably mined." Mining less concentrated deposits would require "far more energy than the mined uranium could ultimately produce." The rising costs of uranium mining, among other costs, has meant that nuclear power investment is tapering off.

Proposals to extract uranium from seawater are currently "useless" because "the energy needed to extract and process uranium from seawater would be about the same as the energy that could be obtained by the same uranium using the current nuclear technology." Therefore within this decade, the report forecasts an "unavoidable" production decline from existing uranium mines.

US Geological Survey data analysed by the report shows that chromium, molybdenum, tungsten, nickel, platinum-palladium, copper, zinc, cadmium, titanium, and tin will face peak production followed by declines within this century. This is because declared reserves are often "more hypothetical than measured", meaning the "assumption of mineral bonanzas... are far removed from reality."

In particular, the report highlights the fate of copper, lithium, nickel and zinc. Physicist Prof Rui Namorado Rosa projects an "imminent slowdown of copper availability" in the report. Although production has grown exponentially, the grade of the minerals mined is steadily declining, lifting mining costs. 'Peak copper' is likely to hit by 2040, but could even occur within the next decade.

Production of lithium, presently used for batteries in electric cars, would also be strained under a large-scale electrification of transport infrastructure and vehicles, according to contributor Emilia Suomalainen, an industrial ecologist of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. Sustainable lithium production requires 80-100% recycling - currently this stands at less than 1%.

Nickel and zinc, which are used to combat iron and steel corrosion and for electricity storage in batteries, also could face production peaks in just "a few decades" - though nickel might be extended some 80 years - according to engineer and metals specialist Philippe Bihoux:

"The easily exploited part of the reserves has been already removed, and so it will be increasingly difficult and expensive to invest in and exploit nickel and zinc mines."

While substitution could help in many cases, it would also be costly and uncertain, requiring considerable investment.

Perhaps the most alarming trend in mineral depletion concerns phosphorous, which is critical to fertilise soil and sustain agriculture. While phosphorous reserves are not running out, physical, energy and economic factors mean only a small percentage of it can be mined. Crop yield on 40 percent of the world's arable land is already limited by economical phosphorus availability.

In the Club of Rome study, physicist Patrick Dery says that several major regions of rock phosphate production - such as the island of Nauru and the US, which is the world's second largest producer - are post-peak and now declining, with global phosphorous supplies potentially becoming insufficient to meet agricultural demand within 30-40 years. The problem can potentially be solved as phosphorous can be recycled.

A parallel trend documented in the report by Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) agronomist Toufic El Asmar is an accelerating decline in land productivity due to industrial agricultural methods, which are degrading the soil by as much as 50% in some areas.

Prof Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said that the report is "an effective piece of work" to assess the planet's mineral wealth "within the framework of sustainability." Its findings offer a "valuable basis for discussions on mineral policy."

But the window for meaningful policy action is closing rapidly. "The main alarm bell is the trend in the prices of mineral commodities," Prof Bardi told me.

"Prices have gone up by a factor 3-5 and have remaine  at these level for the past 5-6 years. They are not going to go down again, because they are caused by irreversible increases in production costs. These prices are already causing the decline of the less efficient economies (say, Italy, Greece, Spain, etc.). We are not at the inversion point
yet, but close - less than a decade?"

Scientists vindicate 'Limits to Growth' - urge investment in 'circular economy'

Nafeez Ahmed


3 June 2014

Early warning of civilisational collapse by early to mid 21st century startlingly prescient - but opportunity for transition open

According to a new peer-reviewed scientific report, industrial civilisation is likely to deplete its low-cost mineral resources within the next century, with debilitating impacts for the global economy and key infrastructures within the coming decade.

The study, the 33rd report to the Club of Rome, is authored by Prof Ugo Bardi of the University of Florence's Earth Sciences Department, and includes contributions from a wide range of senior scientists across relevant disciplines.

The Club of Rome is a Swiss-based global think tank consisting of current and former heads of state, UN bureaucrats, government officials, diplomats, scientists, economists and business leaders.

Its first report in 1972, The Limits to Growth, was conducted by a scientific team at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT), and warned that limited availability of natural resources relative to rising costs would undermine continued economic growth by around the second decade of the 21st century.

Although widely ridiculed, recent scientific reviews confirm that the original report's projections in its 'base scenario' remain robust. In 2008, Australia's federal government scientific research agency CSIRO concluded that The Limits to Growth forecast of potential "global ecological and economic collapse coming up in the middle of the 21st Century" due to convergence of "peak oil, climate change, and food and water security", is "on-track." Actual current trends in these areas "resonate strongly with the overshoot and collapse displayed in the book's 'business-as-usual scenario.'"

In 2009, American Scientist published similar findings by other scientists. That review, by leading systems ecologists Prof Charles Hall of State University of New York and Prof John W Day of Louisiana State University, concluded that while the limits-to-growth model's "predictions of extreme pollution and population decline have not come true", the model results are:

"... almost exactly on course some 35 years later in 2008 (with a few appropriate assumptions)... it is important to recognise that its predictions have not been invalidated and in fact seem quite on target. We are not aware of any model made by economists that is as accurate over such a long time span."

The new Club of Rome report says that:

"The phase of mining by humans is a spectacular but very brief episode in the geological history of the planet... The limits to mineral extraction are not limits of quantity; they are limits of energy. Extracting minerals takes energy, and the more dispersed the minerals are, the more energy is needed... Only conventional ores can be profitably mined with the amounts of energy we can produce today."

The combination of mineral depletion, associated radioactive and heavy metal pollution, and the accumulation of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel exploitation is leaving our descendants the "heavy legacy" of a virtually terraformed world:

"The Earth will never be the same; it is being transformed into a new and different planet."

Drawing on the work of leading climate scientists including James Hansen, the former head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the report warns that a continuation of 'business as usual' exploitation of the world's fossil fuels could potentially trigger runaway global warming that, in several centuries or thousands of years, permanently destroy the planet's capacity to host life. Despite this verdict, the report argues that neither a "collapse" of the current structure of civilisation, nor the "extinction" of the human species are unavoidable.

A fundamental reorganisation of the way societies produce, manage and consume resources could support a new high-technology civilisation, but this would entail a new "circular economy" premised on wide-scale practices of recycling across production and consumption chains, a wholesale shift to renewable energy, application of agro-ecological methods to food production, and with all that, very different types of social structures.

In the absence of a major technological breakthrough in clean energy production such as nuclear fusion - which so far seems improbable - recycling, conservation and efficiency in the management of the planet's remaining accessible mineral resources will need to be undertaken carefully and cooperatively, with the assistance of cutting-edge science.

Limits to economic growth, or even "degrowth", the report says, do not need to imply an end to prosperity, but rather require a conscious decision by societies to lower their environmental impacts, reduce wasteful consumption, and increase efficiency - changes which could in fact increase quality of life while lowering inequality.

These findings of the new Club of Rome report have been confirmed by other major research projects. In January last year, a detailed scientific study by Anglia Ruskin University's Global Sustainability Institute commissioned by the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, found "overwhelming" evidence for resource constraints:

"... across a range of resources over the short (years) and medium (decades) term... Resource constraints will, at best, increase energy and commodity prices over the next century and, at worse, trigger a long term decline in the global economy and civil unrest."

The good news, though is that "If governments and economic agents anticipate resource constraints and act in a constructive manner, many of the worst affects can be avoided."

According to Dr Aled Jones, lead author of the study and head of the Global Sustainability Institute:

"Resource constraints will, at best, steadily increase energy and commodity prices over the next century and, at worst, could represent financial disaster, with the assets of pension schemes effectively wiped out and pensions reduced to negligible levels."

It is imperative to recognise that "dwindling resources raise the possibility of a limit to economic growth in the medium term."

In his 2014 report to the Club of Rome, Prof Bardi takes a long-term view of the prospects for humanity, noting that the many technological achievements of industrial societies mean there is still a chance now to ensure the survival and prosperity of a future post-industrial civilization:

"It is not easy to imagine the details of the society that will emerge on an Earth stripped of its mineral ores but still maintaining a high technological level. We can say, however, that most of the crucial technologies for our society can function without rare minerals or with very small amounts of them, although with modifications and at lower efficiency."

Although expensive and environmentally intrusive industrial structures "like highways and plane travel" would become obsolete, technologies like "the Internet, computers, robotics, long-range communications, public transportation, comfortable homes, food security, and more" could remain attainable with the right approach - even if societies undergo disastrous crises in the short-run.

Bardi is surprisingly matter-of-fact about the import of his study. "I am not a doomster," he told me. "Unfortunately, depletion is a fact of life, not unlike death and taxes. We cannot ignore depletion - just like it is not a good idea to ignore death and taxes...

"If we insist in investing most of what remains for fossil fuels; then we are truly doomed. Yet I think that we still have time to manage the transition. To counter depletion, we must invest a substantial amount of the remaining resources in renewable energy and efficient recycling technologies - things which are not subjected to depletion. And we need to do that before is too late, that is before the energy return on investment of fossil fuels has declined so much that we have nothing left to invest."

Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is an international security journalist and academic.

He is the author of A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It, and the forthcoming science fiction thriller, ZERO POINT. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @nafeezahmed.

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