“As populations in emerging economies adopt similar technologies and lifestyles to those currently used in OECD countries, global metal needs will be three to nine times larger than all the metals currently used in the world"
UN Under Secretary-General Achim Steiner, UNEP’s Executive Director
A key question that relates to the very broad and intensive use of metals is whether society needs to be concerned about long-term supplies of any or many of them. This is a many faceted question that cannot be answered quickly or unequivocally. To address it, the International Resource Panel's Global Metal Flows Working Group envisions a series of reports, of which this one is part, addressing the specific angle of environmental risks and challenges of anthropogenic metals flows and cycles.
Impact of metals on the environment
This report, compiled by a group of international experts, focuses on the impact of metals on the environment as well as on their life cycle energy use. Currently, primary metals production is responsible for 7 – 8 % of the total global energy use as well as for severe local environmental impacts. The report suggests to apply best available techniques and to increase recycling of metals, which not only requires significantly less energy per kg metal produced than primary production but also helps decreasing the overall local impacts of mining. However, even if recycling rates are increased, rising global demand for many metals will remain a huge environmental challenge in the next decades worldwide.
Main issues of concern for policy-makers presented in this report:
- presently, the demand for metals is rising rapidly and this trend is expected to continue for the next decades
- a shift towards a renewable energy system implies the material, and especially metal, intensity of energy production will increase even faster
- in future, the energy intensity of the production of metals may increase as a result of mining lesser grade ores. For some metals, a trend of decreasing ore grades is visible, and for more it may become visible over the next decades