Keynote remarks by IPCC Chair Jim Skea – MENA Climate Week

Future Minerals Forum
MENA/UNFCCC Climate Week,
Riyadh, 09 October 2023


Excellencies, distinguished colleagues, ladies and gentlemen.

It is a privilege to address this important event as a guest of the Kingdom and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. As the Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the IPCC – you have my assurance that we will actively engage with this region, as with other world regions. This is vital for shaping our scientific advice on one of the greatest challenges facing humankind. We also attach great importance to our interaction with the UN Framework Convention.   We acknowledge and appreciate the multiple references to IPCC´s work in recent Convention documents.

The topic of today’s session, the role of minerals in the energy transition, has received growing attention in recent years as the energy transition gathers pace. Even since the cut-off date for literature assessed in the IPCC´s Sixth Assessment report, just two years ago, discussion and analysis has intensified.

In this session I will set out the energy transition context which is driving interest in critical strategic minerals.  I will review what IPCC said in the sixth cycle about their role, and consider how the IPCC’s seventh cycle might developed and how the topic of critical strategic minerals might be addressed.

So, what did IPCC say about energy transitions?

Our reports  concluded that, in scenarios consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 or even 2 degrees Celsius, energy systems globally would reach net zero emissions before most other systems and sectors. Such net-zero CO2 energy systems would have three elements:

  • a substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use,
  • minimal use of unabated fossil fuels, and
  • use of carbon capture utilisation and storage in the remaining fossil fuel system.

In the middle of the range of assessed pathways likely to limit warming to 2°C, coal use would fall by 85% by 2050, oil use by 30% and gas use by 15%. The declines would be even greater under a 1.5°C scenarios.

This would be accompanied by the widespread uptake of low-carbon energy, especially renewables. It would also include, for example, the electrification of the energy system including end uses; energy carriers such as sustainable biofuels and low-emissions hydrogen; energy conservation and efficiency; and greater physical, institutional, and operational integration across the energy system.

Low and zero-emission energy technologies, such as renewables, would play an essential role in such transitions. Unit cost reductions in key technologies, notably wind power, solar power, and storage, have increased the economic attractiveness of low-emission energy sector transitions. Electricity systems powered predominantly by renewables are becoming increasingly viable. Electricity systems in some countries and regions are already predominantly powered by renewables.

And cost reductions in batteries have already prompted an acceleration of the take-up of electric vehicles.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The secure supply of many metals and minerals, such as cobalt, copper, lithium, and rare earth elements, is critical to supporting a low-emissions energy system transition. A low-carbon energy system transition will increase the demand for these minerals to be used in technologies such as wind turbines, solar cells, and batteries.

Wind energy depends on two critical rare earth elements used in magnets in high-performance generators. Silicon-wafer-based solar PV, which accounted for 95% of solar PV production in 2020, utilises aluminium, copper, and silver. Lithium, nickel, cobalt, and phosphorous are used in batteries. Electric vehicles rely on critical minerals for building the necessary charging infrastructure and for permanent magnet motors.

The anticipated expansion of renewable energy and battery use poses various challenges. These include resource availability, concentration of supply chains, labour rights, non-climate environmental impacts, and the costs of critical minerals needed for lithium-ion batteries.

The known supply of some strategic minerals is still close to 600 years at current levels of demand.  But strategic minerals are found in a limited number of countries, and there have been concerns that geopolitical factors could disrupt the supply chain necessary for a low-carbon energy system transition. Emerging national strategies on critical strategic minerals and the requirements from major vehicle manufacturers are leading to new, more geographically diverse supplies.

Concerns have been raised about the non-climate environmental impacts of mining for these materials. Metal production itself is energy-intensive and difficult to decarbonise. However, electric vehicles powered by low- emissions electricity have a large potential to reduce land-based transport GHG emissions, on a life cycle basis. The deployment of renewable energy displaces fossil fuels and the resulting GHG emissions.

Innovation has a role to play in managing the potential risks associated with renewables and battery deployment. The well-known circularity concepts of reduce, re-use, recycle and remove come into play here.

There are alternatives to the strategic minerals currently used to support a low-carbon transition. Wind turbines can be manufactured without permanent magnets to reduce the need for critical minerals, though the production costs are higher, and their efficiency is reduced.  Alternatives to silicon, such as thin films, could be used to produce solar cells. Thin-films use much less material than silicon-based PV, but they contain other potentially critical metals such as tellurium, cadmium, and gallium. Alternatives to lithium-ion batteries, such as sodium-ion batteries, are becoming more practical and feasible.

Energy and material efficiency improvements, recycling and circular material flows can reduce the environmental footprint and material supply risks for battery production. An increased focus on design for recyclability is important. Given the high degree of recyclability of lithium-ion batteries, a nearly closed-loop system is conceivable in the future. In addition, the standardisation of battery modules and packaging within and across vehicle platforms would improve material efficiency and recyclability.

The future

Your excellencies, distinguished colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

The IPCC is starting to consider its Programme of Work under the Seventh Cycle which will last from five to seven years.  Within the next few months member governments will be in a position to determine and plan which reports and products might be delivered during the Seventh cycle.

Last week, our UNFCCC colleagues published a synthesis of perspectives regarding the components for the first global stocktake which will conclude at COP28 in Dubai. The numerous references to IPCC outputs and conclusions, including those relevant for the energy transition if global warming is to be limited to 1.5 degrees, are both flattering and a reminder of our responsibilities as scientists.

Having already made a significant contribution to the first Global Stocktake, the extent to which the IPCC could contribute to the second Global Stocktake in 2028 may be a factor in member governments’ take into account when they make decisions concerning the Seventh Cycle.

Once a plan for the Seventh Cycle is agreed, scientists will start to scope out the reports and present the outlines for approval by governments. The last full IPCC scoping meetings took place in 2017. It is fair to say that there was no explicit mention of critical minerals, nor just transition for that matter, in the approved outlines.

This is a reflection of how fast the world has moved in recent years. Authors were able to approach the question of critical minerals through the lens of innovation, and wider socio-economic and environmental consequences. In the seventh cycle, subject to the views of scientists and governments, there is the opportunity to take a much more focused approach.

IPCC operates alongside other UN environmental assessments. The role of the International Resources Panel is particularly relevant in the context of strategic minerals. I have been an advocate of greater engagement and cooperation between the various UN environmental assessments. The topic of critical minerals is an obvious candidate for such cooperation. By working together, we can harness our collective wisdom to address the multiple challenges we all face – climate change, biodiversity and resource management.

  • In closing, IPCC´s key messages are:
  • the energy transition is already taking place and there is increased recognition of it;
  • any energy transition compatible with 1.5, or even 2 degrees, warming has profound consequences for the use of renewable energy and storage with a resulting scale-up of demand for strategic minerals;
  • and there are approaches for managing the associated challenges through diversification of supply, application of circularity concepts and innovation. 

I look forward to engaging and fruitful discussions in this session and throughout  this Regional Climate Week.

Thank you very much for your attention.