Net Zero Carbon and other “planning dilemmas” Part 2

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In Part 1 of this series, I introduced the concept of going to the plan’s end result and working backwards through the planning process. I recommend this for some of the more difficult planning tasks, as it eases the mental burden. By that I mean, when faced with the challenge of planning for the world to meet a net zero carbon by 2050, the mental challenge is enormous. So, let’s break it down.

A world that is meeting a net zero carbon target by 2050 will have to have achieved many linked but somewhat individual tasks and schedules. There are simply too many individual tasks to list, so I’m going to try and sub-group so that we can at least get a conceptualized overview of the challenges ahead.

  1. Physical Resources.
  2. Technology.
  3. ESG Concerns.
  4. Power Requirements.
  5. Human Resources.

I’ll try and cover each sub-group and provide linkages as we develop our thoughts. FYI. I have heeded my own advice here and started the process from the end and worked backwards. What you’ll see are my thoughts and impressions formulated over many years in Critical Materials, ESG management, and planning, coming together hopefully with each article to get us all on board and with a clearer, more transparent, an honest view of the Net Zero Carbon issue, a Net Zero future and its requirements.

OK. Let’s start with Physical Resources. You will have all been made aware by various reports that the amount of Physical Resources required for electric cars, wind turbines, solar power farms etc. is enormous. If not gigantic. It is certainly numbers of orders of magnitude bigger than current production levels. It is staggering to try to imagine 10 times (for example) the production of lithium, copper, chromium, rare earths, etc not to mention the steel and aluminum required for associated infrastructure. But let’s put the issue of scale aside for the moment. I want to first dispel the notion that recycling will be the answer. I am not going to say that recycling is not important and should not be avidly pursued, but what I am saying is that recycling is not the “big-ticket” answer to the Physical Resources requirements. I’ll demonstrate with a mathematical exercise.

Let’s look at the current level of batteries (as an example). We need an assumptions list. We need a current output level, let’s use a starting point of 100 units. Each battery will last 10 years. The growth in the need for batteries is positive 10% per year. These absolute numbers are not really important in this discussion. It is the understanding of where they take us that’s important. OK. Question one – how much recycling can you do in year 1? Answer – None. There are no batteries to be recycled. They last for ten years! So not until year 11 are batteries available for recycle and these are the now “dead” year 1 units. 100 of them only. Then 110 in year 12. 121 in year 13.

I know I have simplified the situation but as I will repeat throughout this series of articles, it’s the overall impact that needs to be understood, not the detail as such. Look at the following table of units needed to meet demand, the resources needed versus the effectiveness of recycling capacity.

YearBatteries DemandAdditional Capacity to supplyRecycle AvailableCumulative Additional CapacityUtilize Recycle to get new Capacity

So, it’s not until year 11 that recycled batteries have any effect. The battery demand and the resources required will have increased between 6 and 8 times by then. In fact, it won’t be until at least year 15 that any noticeable effect of recycling will be noticed. So, recycling may be a small part of an eventual solution, but it is not the saviour. Only increased output is. And increases in mining, processing, refining and manufacturing of this scale is to say the least challenging. And to meet the time challenge of 2050?

Well, let’s muddy the waters of our planning process a little more and introduce the complication of co-dependence. And by that I want you to think about the example of making electric cars. To make one car you need enough of the various components to do that. Obviously! But what happens if you do not have any of component X? (Think of the current microchips issue for example). The whole schedule stalls until the production level of component X meets the needs for that volume of production. Now think back over the last ten years at the junior rare earths space. Why haven’t they developed the capacity to meet the predicted needs? Well, the end user, the car companies in this example, didn’t expand as fast as first thought (or is that hoped?) and the explorer couldn’t get market contracts to justify getting the development capital. So, the co-dependence of the car company and the junior explorer, stalled the junior’s development. In fact, it shut down many of the juniors. Those that managed to stay alive are now facing more years to get back up and the co-dependence will again surface as the slow ramp up of rare earths output will directly impact the growth of the output of electric cars! What is the impact of this co-dependence of mining development for the rare earths in the magnets needed for electric car output requirements in 2050? It will take some planning. Especially when you throw in the mix the co-dependence of all the other resources required, particularly those critical materials with a long timeline to development.

Another term I use is cross-dependence. Again, in the electric car example, the vertical supply chain for each element or assembly, or whatever, can be influenced by a separate although essential vertical supply chain. Let me explain. If you need as an example to create a vertical supply chain for each of three new components, say, the magnets (from rare earths), the batteries (from lithium) and microchips (from silica), will the planning process allow for the indefinite delay in one or more of the components? That is to say, can the rare earths development timeline needed for the magnets be affected by an extensive delay in the creation of a process, or development of the resource, for say, lithium? Or silica? Of course, it can. The justification for the planned development of one is impacted by the achieved development timeline of the others. The car needs a number of successful developments in critical minerals in separate supply chains (and other components) to reach the final stage, producing the required number of vehicles by the timeline stated. And they have to have matching timelines otherwise the imbalance will cause a market condition where the component being developed the fastest may be stalled by the delay in the component being developed the slowest. Although co-dependence is taught in most Economics courses, as it is standard supply chain logic, cross-dependence has become much more odious today as the need for new components comes to light. And this is only the Physical Resources. Can you see this isn’t a simple “Supply Chain” issue. Its not one component we are looking at here. It’s many. It’s a “Supply Array” issue!

Now we are getting started! Now consider the implications of the Republicans’ defeat at the last USA elections. Did that have implications for the 2050 target? You betcha! As will the EU response to the looming energy crisis across Europe this winter. I’ll call this dependence Geopolitical or GP-Dependence. So, we now have added another dimension to the planning process. The planning dilemma has to deal with a “Supply Matrix”! Wasn’t in my Economics 101.

Now, that’s just for electric cars! You now have to throw in co-dependence, cross-dependence and GP-dependence with all those other required developments that together meet the 2050 target, some of which it has been stated that the technology does not yet exist! And remember, all of these developments are competing for the same resources! The Critical Minerals at least. This “Planning Dilemma” is on a scale probably never seen in the Western World. Well, not since World War II.

I think that’s enough on the Physical Resources issue. There have been many articles, reports etc on this topic from others, but don’t forget the reasoning behind the issues of recycling, co-dependence,  cross-dependence and GP-dependence. It will come back later.

I’m looking forward to reviewing the Battle of the ESG Titans online debate as ESG is a passion of mine. Since the Battle was live at 3am Thursday morning 15th December in my part of Australia, I will change the order of the 5 sub-groups listed above for discussion. I’ll discuss ESG concerns next (article 3), to incorporate thoughts from The Battle, and discuss Technology in article 4.

I’m thinking: have a great time over the holidays, stay safe and see you next time.

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