European Geologist Journal 42

Resourcing Future Generations: A global effort to meet the world’s future needs head-on

By Edmund Nickless*

*IUGS Councillor and Chair, New Activities Strategic Implementation Committee; Geological Society of London,


The last fifty years saw a dramatic increase in living standards and improvement in the quality of life for many of the world’s poorest. Mortality rates fell, life expectancy rose, and per capita incomes swelled.

That improvement has been underpinned by technological development and the ubiquitous use of metal and mineral resources. To maintain this trajectory while addressing climate change and rising world population, sustainable sources of raw materials are required, in both developed and developing countries.

Of the 200 or so countries in the world, 60 are open to large-scale mining but 140 are not. International agreement and a new form of Social Contract are needed to more fairly share the wealth generated by mining. Working with others such as the International Resources Panel of the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Council for Metals and Mining could develop and promote such arrangements.

With few exceptions, what we do not grow, farm or fish comes out of the Earth: the clay to make bricks; the aggregate to mix with cement to make concrete; the limestone dust which acts as a mild abrasive in toothpaste.

The improvement in the standard of living of many of the world’s poorest over the last half century has been driven in large measure by technological development. That development has depended on the use of an increasingly wide range of metallic elements to the extent that, by way of example, up to 75 elements, almost all the Periodic Table, are used in mobile phones, albeit in small quantities.

Demand for all metals and raw materials is rising (Figure 1), consumption is increasing (Figure 2), surface mines are going deeper, consuming more energy (Figure 3) and lower grades are being worked using more energy and water (Figure 4). Arguably the most easily found deposits are already known. Discovery of new deposits is failing to keep pace with the rate of exhaustion and costs of exploration and development are rising (Figure 5) and there is increasing opposition at local, regional and national level to opening new mines. Mining and people do not always mix well, with the result that there is public reaction – push back – perhaps because of a lack of awareness of where metals and raw materials come from.

Figure 1:  Output from global mining for selected metals and elements (Sverdrup et al., 2013).

Figure 2:  Domestic material consumption, Asia-Pacific region and rest of world (1970-2010) (UNEP, 2015, Fig. 2).

Figure 3:  Base metal deposits found in the World between 1900-2013 by progressively exploring under deep cover (Schodde, 2014).

Figure 4:  Ore grades are steadily declining for a variety of base and precious metals in Australia.  (Prior et al., 2012, Fig. 3).

Figure 5: Western world exploration spending and discovery (Schodde, 2014).

Figure 6:  UN Sustainable Development Goals: 17 goals to transform our world (

Mining competes with other land uses with the result that there is increase in community conflict, operations are delayed or prevented by problems in receiving permits and licences or social conflicts. In many jurisdictions, community and legal barriers add many years’ delay to the issuing of licences, resulting in many millions of tonnes per year loss in supply.

In October 2015 world leaders agreed to 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals with delivery within 15 years (Figure 6). Two of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals touch on resource extraction and use (Table 1).

Table 1: United Nations Sustainable Development Goals directly related to resource extraction and use.

Goal 8 Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
         8.4 improve progressively through 2030 global resource efficiency in consumption and production, and endeavour to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation…
Goal 12 Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
         12.2 by 2030 achieve sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources

And in December 2015, with the adoption of the Paris Accord, there was international agreement to move towards a global, less intensive carbon economy which if implemented will impose additional demands for metals and minerals. From where will future supplies come?

Recognising that rapid growth in demand could lead to problems in continuity of supply, in February 2013 the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) launched a new initiative – Resourcing Future Generations – overseen by a New Activities Strategic Implementation Committee. The original intention was to consider future mineral, energy and water supply, all of which are interlinked, but for now the initiative is focussed on metals and minerals.

Table 2: Background on IUGS and further reading on RFG.

No. Source document(s), website(s)
1 The International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) is one of five geosciences-related scientific unions within the International Council for Science (ICSU). With 121 national members, the IUGS aims to promote development of the Earth sciences through the support of broad-based scientific studies relevant to the entire Earth system; to apply the results of these and other studies to preserving Earth’s natural environment, using all natural resources wisely and improving the prosperity of nations and the quality of human life; and to strengthen public awareness of geology and advance geological education in the widest sense. Further information on IUGS is at  The International Council for Science (ICSU) is a non-governmental organisation with a global membership of national scientific bodies (122 Members, representing 142 countries) and International Scientific Unions (31 Members). See
2 Resourcing Future Generations (RFG), an IUGS initiative, was launched in February 2013.  Background is at and
3 Membership of IUGS comprises Adhering members and Affiliated organisations. Adhering members are listed at; Affiliated organisations are listed at
4 Membership of the RFG Core Group is at
5 Lambert, I., Durrheim, R., Godoy, M., Kota, M., Leahy, P., Ludden, J., Nickless, E., Oberhaensli, R., Anjian, W., Williams, N. 2013. Resourcing future generations: A proposed new IUGS initiative. Episodes 36(2). 82-86.
6 RFG brochure (8 pp.).
7 Nickless, E., Bloodworth, A., Meinert, L., Giurco, D., Mohr, S., Littleboy, A. 2014. Resourcing Future Generations White Paper: Mineral Resources and Future Supply. International Union of Geological Sciences. (30pp.)
8 Nickless, E., Ali, S., Arndt, N., Brown, G., Demetriades, A., Durrheim, R., Enriquez M.A., Giurco, D., Kinnaird, J., Littleboy, A., Masotti, F., Meinert, L., Nyanganyura, D., Oberhänsli, R., Salem, J., Schneider, G., Yakovleva., N. Resourcing Future Generations: A Global Effort to Meet The World’s Future Needs Head-on. International Union of Geological Sciences. 2015, 78pp.
9 RFG policy statement.
10 Report on critical raw materials for the EU.

Some background on IUGS together with documents published by NASIC and other references are at Table 2. Of these, the most recent is the report (Table 2, item 8) of a group of 17 geoscientists and social scientists who met in Namibia in July 2015 to consider three themes:

  1. The evolution of demand over the next few decades and consideration of the issues this raises for supply, and how energy security and climate change are altering the demand for metals and minerals;
  1. The specific issues in meeting future demand for minerals and metals that primarily come from non-renewable sources in the ground, together with a summary of developments in the technology for finding, understanding and extracting mineral and metal resources from the ground and, using Namibia as a case study, how geological expertise can positively contribute to economic development;
  1. The potential contribution of resource development in nation building, if handled effectively, and using Brazil as an example, how channelling revenues from resources into economic and social development, including health and education, drives development.

The group recommends a series of actions:

  1. Develop international guidelines for planetary mineral consumption: Articulate at global and regional levels a vision for future mineral and metal demand;
  1. Raise awareness of the impacts of mineral consumption from source to product: Investigate a system for tracking mineral use from source to product, incorporating as a global chain-of-custody programme similar to the concept of “food miles” or sustainable forestry marking;
  1. Support industry investment and research into new mineral exploration and extraction technologies: New mineral exploration techniques are needed to find remote or deeply buried deposits. Major investment at a scale only realisable through private-public cooperation is needed to develop these techniques;
  1. Develop global best practice for responsible mineral resource development: Technological evolution needs to be reinforced by the development of global practices for responsible resource development that balance the long term value of any mineral assets against alternative land-uses, such as biodiversity protection, agriculture and urbanisation.

How do we make this happen? Although the timing is uncertain, despite the present low price of many commodities future shortages in supply are inevitable. The current global downturn in the commodities sector is restricting investment in exploration, which will have a longer term effect, given that it can take 20 or more years from discovery of a deposit to bring a mine into production. Figure 7 models the future requirement for copper – but might equally be for iron or similar materials in high demand for infrastructural development – and forecasts a shortfall in supply from about 2035, which at 2050 peaks at 30 Mt.

Figure 7: Historical and projected primary copper production (modified from Kerr, 2014 and Northey et al., 2014).

Increased recycling and substitution has the potential to reduce the level of future demand but continuing urbanisation and redevelopment of existing cities will lock away huge quantities of materials in infrastructure for many decades, possibly 120 years or more, and there will be a continuing need for primary production for the foreseeable future.  Even under the most efficient recycling processes the need for primary production will continue, albeit potentially at a lower level.

Figure 8 shows work by Kleijn, 2011, but there are other studies, for example by the European Commission (Table 2, item 10), which tell essentially the same story. The estimated metals demand of new energy generating and transmission technologies is shown to the right; the traditional energy generating technologies lie to the left.

Figure 8: Requirements of selected metals in different power generation technologies relative to the metal demand of the current mix (Kleijn et al., 2011).

The transition to a low-carbon energy system required to tackle climate change implies a steep increase of the metals intensity of the energy system, which in turn will cause a substantial increase in the demand for metals (by a factor 2 to 100). Specifically, the introduction of Carbon Capture and Storage in fossil-based power production would increase the metals intensity of power generation by 30% for iron and 75% for nickel at coal-fired plants, and by 40% for iron and 150% for nickel at gas-fired plants.

In switching to renewable energy generation:

  • Wind turbines require rare earth elements for magnets, copper for the generator, and steel and cement for the tower and base;
  • PV solar cells require silver for silicon based cells, and cadmium, tellurium, indium, gallium, germanium and ruthenium;
  • Energy crops require steel for agricultural machines and mineral inputs for fertilisers.

And finally, the transmission of more renewable energy would require more copper and steel for the electricity power lines and pipelines, and platinum and other specialty metals for catalysts and storage.

Regardless of whether known supplies are enough to cover demand in the near term, efforts must be made now to forestall unpredictable yet inevitable supply shortages in the decades to come – shortages that will dramatically impact deployment of low-carbon technology and whose effect will fall disproportionately on the developing world. Can market forces alone ensure continuity of supply?

The Sustainability Development Goals refer to sharing the wealth generated by mining more equitably and to socio-cultural consequences of geological activities, including nation building. How are such objectives to be delivered? In many countries there is an antithesis to mining. Many countries fear ‘resource colonialism’ and wish to retain more of the wealth from mining by adding value in-country.

Responsible resource development has the proven potential to alleviate poverty and empower communities and nations, particularly in developing nations, but of the world’s 200 or so countries, large-scale mining is focussed on fewer than 60, partly because of geology but also for reasons as diverse as the absence of modern mining law, baseline geological information, transport and communications infrastructure, skilled indigenous workforces and stable governance.

New, highly transparent arrangements are needed that recognise the interests of mining companies and populations at local, regional and national level, balancing the use of land for mining against the claims of other industries, agriculture, urban development and ecological demands including water protection, forestry and recreation.

Mining is just one of many uses of land and social acceptance – social licence – cannot be assumed given the legacy of past mining, when natural resource development was often accompanied by undesirable impacts on landscapes, on air and water quality, and on human and wildlife health.

As part of the push toward sustainability – globally, regionally and locally – mining efforts must be pursued responsibly and efficiently to minimise damage to ecosystems and ensure accessible supplies for future generations.

More inclusive arrangements are needed to embrace individual applicant companies, national, regional and local government, local communities and other stakeholder groups, and aimed at delivering Sustainable Development Goals. But who would broker such new arrangements? There are already many actors and arguably no need for new institutional arrangements. So the challenge is to use existing organizations and structures. But how do you encourage dialogue and cooperation?

Much is already going on. The International Resource Panel of the United Nations Environment Programme with the International Council for Metals and Mining could develop and promote such arrangements as best practice. Within Europe, there is a considerable body of work being done under the EU Horizon 2020 programme. And the IUGS RFG initiative is an attempt by the geological community to reach out to others, to recognise the roles of academia, in all its hues, and of industry.

Delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals within the agreed 15-year timetable, with improvement in the quality of life of many of the world’s poorest, together with creation of new power generation and transmission technologies to implement the Paris Accord, will increase demand for metals and minerals. To ensure continuity of supply concerted action and agreement at an international level is necessary. The way to achieve that is far from clear, but perhaps by beginning to discuss these matters a pathway will emerge.


Kerr, R. 2014. The coming copper peak. Science 343(6172). 722-724.

Kleijn, R., van der Voet, E., Kramer, G.J., van Oers, L., van der Giesen, C. 2011. Metal requirements of low-carbon power generation. Energy 36(9). 5640-5648.

Northey, S., Mohr, S., Mudd, G.M., Weng, Z., Giurco, D. 2014. Modelling future copper ore grade decline based on a detailed assessment of copper resources and mining. Resources, Conservation and Recycling 83. 190-201.

Prior, T., Giurco, D., Mudd, G., Mason, L., Behrisch, J. 2012. Resource depletion, peak minerals and the implications for sustainable resource management. Global Environmental Change 22(3). 577-587.

Schodde, R.  2014. The global shift to undercover exploration: How fast? How effective? Presentation, Society of Economic Geologists 2014 Conference, 30 September, Keystone, Colorado.

Sverdrup, H.U., Koca, D., Ragnarsdóttir, K.V. 2013. Peak metals, minerals, energy, wealth, food and population; urgent policy considerations for a sustainable society. Journal of Environmental Science and Engineering B 2, 189-222.

UNEP. 2015. Indicators for a Resource Efficient and Green Asia and the Pacific – Measuring progress of sustainable consumption and production, green economy and resource efficiency policies in the Asia-Pacific region. (Schandl, H., West, J., Baynes, T., Hosking, K., Reinhardt, W., Geschke, A., Lenzen, M.) United Nations Environment Programme, Bangkok.

This article has been published in European Geologist Journal 42 – International cooperation on raw materials.