An international study has overturned the assumption that mineral resource deposits will be depleted within a few decades, arguing that as yet undiscovered resources will be enough to supply future generations. Future shortages will instead arise from environmental or societal pressures.
According to the University of Geneva in Switzerland, recent predictions declaring that deposits of mineral raw materials such as copper or zinc will be exhausted within a few decades if consumption does not decrease are incorrect. It argues that as of yet unidentified resources of most mineral commodities will be sufficient to meet the growing demand from industrialisation and future demographic changes.
The difference hinges on the definitions of reserves and resources.
“Do not confuse the mineral resources that exist within the Earth with reserves, which are mineral resources that have been identified and quantified and are able to be exploited economically. Some studies that predict upcoming shortages are based on statistics that only take reserves into account, i.e. a tiny fraction of the deposits that exist”, explained Lluis Fontboté, a professor at the University of Geneva.
Mining companies generally only explore and delineate reserves as are needed for a few decades of profitable operation. The search for larger reserves would be too expensive and unnecessary from an economic perspective.
This means that undiscovered reserves are often neglected in calculations. According to the study’s authors, the vast majority of mined deposits have been discovered at the Earth’s surface or in the uppermost 300 metres of the crust. However, deposits are also present at greater depths, and current techniques now allow mining to depths of at least 2,000 to 3,000 metres.
Some mineral shortages in the past had more to do with operational and economic issues than lack of supplies. For example, it can take up to 20 years between the discovery of a new deposit and its effective operation. Temporary shortages can occur if demand rises faster than industrial exploitation.
“The real problem is not the depletion of resources but the environmental and societal impact of mining operations,” said Fontboté.
Mining is undeniably linked to environmental degradation and many challenges remain despite modern technologies.
According to the study’s authors, recycling is important and essential but not enough to meet the strong growth in demand from developing countries.
Instead, the financial, environmental and societal costs of mining must be fairly divided between industrialised and developing countries, as well as between the local communities near the mines and the rest of society.
“Society must find ways to discover and mine the needed resources while respecting the environment and the interests of local communities,” argue the authors.