Transcript: The Inconvenient Truth About Reaching Net Zero

Read the conversation between author Ed Conway and Merryn Talks Money host Merryn Somerset Webb.

(Bloomberg) — In this week’s episode of Merryn Talks Money, Bloomberg Opinion writer Merryn Somerset Webb interviews Ed Conway, the economics editor of Sky News and author of Material World.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation. Listen in full below, learn more about the podcast here, and subscribe on Apple and  Spotify to stay on top of new episodes.

Merry Somerset Webb: Ed, thank you so much for joining us today. We hugely appreciate it.

Ed Conway: Thank you. It’s exciting.

Webb: Now you have written possibly one of the most interesting books I have read in a really, really long time. You have no idea. And, and listeners, I’m looking for sympathy here. You have no idea how many non-fiction books pass my desk. God, most of them are boring. So boring. And most of them I read the introduction, I read the conclusion. I pretend I’ve read the whole thing. It’s almost never true. But on this occasion, I’ve had this book for less than 24 hours and I’ve read, I would say a good half of it already. And the rest, I’ll be reading. Ed, I should stop talking. It’s absolutely brilliant. So before we go any further, it’s called Material World: A Substantial Story of Our Past and Future by Ed Conway.

Go out, buy it, right now. You can’t get it physically in America until November, but you can get it physically in the UK and Europe now. And of course you can probably get it on a Kindle in the US. Go out and buy it. You will learn a lot. Now, Ed, the first thing I want to do is talk a little bit about this distinction that you make in the introduction when you talk about the difference between the ethereal world and the material world and how shocking it was to you to find that you had been inadvertently living in only one of them for the majority of your life.

Conway: Yeah, I mean, it’s so, so it kind of started, you know, I’m a journalist. I kind of had this idea of this ethereal world that we’re, that many of us live in doing kind of service sector jobs where we we’re using our brain power and, and we’re all told, repeatedly that is the kind of apogee of human achievements, you know, to use your brain. And really all you need is a good idea. Make an app and then you can change the world. And that feels like part of the story that we’ve been told over the last kind of 10, 20 years or so. And if you extend it further, things like finance, you and I know a lot of people who work in finance, it is ultimately kind of financial intermediation it’s not necessarily kind of making stuff. And I had this kind of profound experience. Not that it’s not important, I should say. I mean it’s incredibly important, but this is to, to make a distinction with this, this other world. I went out to this gold mine in Nevada a few years ago, and I was filming a piece for Sky News about Brexit.

But the thing that really stayed with me staring at this mine was just how much of this mountain, it was this enormous mountain, they were tearing down in order to get a really tiny amount of gold. It took about ten jumbo jets. So ten 380s worth of ore to get one gold bar. So the scale of exploitation of what you need to do to the earth to get what you need was just kind of way beyond what I kind of expected.

It was just staggering. And so from that, I kind of found myself thinking, well, hang on. What do we need to do if that’s what we need to do to get a bar of gold? What do we need to do to get the stuff that we really need? Because obviously, you know, gold we need in certain respects, but you know, we’re not going to literally kind of drop down dead if we don’t have gold.

Whereas if we don’t get, you know, fertilizer, if you don’t have steel, if you don’t have concrete, if you don’t have copper to electrify the world, then that’s a different story. And so that kind of set me off down this other road of trying to explore what the materials are that we really, really need and what does it take to kind of get them out of the ground, convert them into the things that we use.

And as I kind of delve deeper into it, it just, yeah, it struck me that there is this entirely different world where engineering is key, where physics is key. Where science is genuinely not just an abstract term, but it’s actually being applied every day. You know, look at kind of what’s happening with the manufacturer of semiconductors.

And this felt like, you know, I called it the material world. It felt like a different universe and it felt like an inspiring and exciting place, but most of all, it just felt unfamiliar. And I think that’s partly because, particularly in the UK, but also to some extent the US, to some extent some parts of Europe, we’ve increasingly outsourced the production of stuff.

We’ve outsourced the getting of things from the ground and everything pretty much that we’re touching on a daily basis is either grown, but for the most part it is mined. It comes out of the ground, but we just don’t do as much of it in this country, and as a result, we don’t think about it that much. We don’t think about the pragmatic realities of how the world around us actually came to be.

And it’s partly something about, you know, our lack of awareness in the real world and that lack of awareness I think is, is quite important because it’s partly because we didn’t have to think about this stuff. It’s partly because we outsourced a lot of it to China. I think we are not as aware of both the challenges, so the particular challenges of carbon emissions.

Where does that carbon come from? It comes from everything. It comes from pretty much every process you can care to imagine, but also the challenges. You know, there is no single switch we’ll ever be able to flick, which can suddenly turn out those carbon emissions. And the book is a bit of an exploration into both of those sides, you know, how we’re actually making stuff, you know, how does a semiconductor get made?

And you know, plenty has been written about semiconductors by the way. But I think this is the first book which actually tells the story of how you make a semiconductor from the quarry all the way through to the fab. Okay. Lots, lots has been written about fabs, but not so much has been written about how you make polysilicon or how you make silicon metal, or how you  make the actual kind of wafer itself.

And that stuff is, that’s fascinating. And that’s half of the journey of the supply chain before it gets to TSMC or indeed, any of those other fabrication plants. Yeah, so partly is a story of wonder, but partly it’s also like, let’s just think about the world pragmatically for a change.

Webb: It’s interesting, isn’t it?

I’m just going to tell listeners what are the six materials that you focus on. It’s sand, salt, iron, copper, oil, and lithium. So we’ll talk about a few of those. There’s a lot in what you just said to unpack and there’s a whole other podcast to be had about how ESG itself relates to the actual material world as opposed to the theoretical material world that most investors live in.

I mean, you’ve just said that the mine, you went and see the gold mine ticked every box, but was still a bloody great hole on the ground destroying a real environmental whatever around it, right? Say nothing of the impact it might have on local communities, et cetera. And I’m guessing I’ve seen pictures of mines like that, but anyone standing next to a mine like that would be amazed to think that it ticked any ESG box at all or certain, any e-box. Although obviously all these things are going to tick s-boxes and that’s very important as well. So, well, if we have time, we’ll come back to ESG. Although actually it’s all about ESG, isn’t it? This really is a book about energy in lots of ways, isn’t it?

Because one of the things that you were saying, it’s about turning sand into this and salt into this and iron into this, et cetera, but that turning is a story of energy. So one of the things that I think you touch on in pretty much every chapter along the way in the book is how we are doing something or attempting to do something extraordinary, I suspect will fail.

But we are attempting to do something extraordinary, which is go through the first ever energy transition that does not involve transitioning to a better and more intense fuel for the first time. We’re trying to transition to a fuel that is effectively in terms of intensity worse than the one we’re leaving behind.

So one of the things that you talk about is that there are a lot of inconvenient truths in here that our attempt to switch to net zero is much more difficult than most people even begin to imagine it will be and possibly impossible.

Conway: It’s a real, I mean, it’s, it’s an enormous challenge and I think that’s the issue is that no one doubts the importance of what we are aiming to do.

You know, at the moment what’s interesting, Merryn, I feel like over the past 10 years is that, you know, that debate about some of the science, about what’s happening with anthropogenic global warming that seems to have been kind of more or less settled. What hasn’t really been settled is the solution and how we get there and how much of a compromise there’s going to be in order for us to fulfill these goals.

A lot of governments, you know, the UK was the first, have signed into law acts that say we must get to net zero by a certain time, mostly 2050, without really thinking about what that actually involves.

Webb: And, and also about how, if you get anywhere near it, how much do those emissions you have  to ask other people to take on for you?

Conway: Well, I mean that’s, that’s what we’ve done in the UK. You know, we are the global champion to some extent in the G7, at least, at reducing our carbon emissions. And we’ve done that, not entirely, but we’ve done that partly by de-industrializing faster than any other major economy. We just don’t make stuff anymore.

And that’s a good way of de-industrializing.Webb: But not a good way of growing.Conway: But not a good way of growing. It’s not a good way of growing. And I kind of touched on this a little bit towards the end of the book, because again, it’s been a bit of a journey for me.

And as you say, a lot of it is about energy. I didn’t really expect at the start of it that it would be so much about energy. But, but yes, if you are looking at the conversion of anything, any raw material into something else, then a lot of energy is spent there. That’s, you know, straightforward, thermodynamics.

And as a result, then you need to think about how you’re gonna do it differently. Because right now, carbon emissions are everywhere. I mean, the, a good example of this is to make a, to make a silicon chip or solar panel, you need to take silicon out of the ground, but you need to then turn that into a form of metal.

In order to do that, you smelt it. So you’re smelting it, not unlike how you would smelt, iron in an electric arc furnace. And in order to smelt it, you need coal. So in order to make the silicon metal that we make our solar panels out of and our silicon chips out of, you need coal right now at least.

And that is one tiny example of a way in which carbon is kind of integral to pretty much every product you touch on a daily basis. And while there’s been plenty of imagination and thought given into how we are gonna deal with certain processes where we’re going to change our power generation, for instance, but you know, as you’ve said many times before, even that hasn’t really been thought through as deeply as it really ought to be.

The industrial side of it.  I mean, people talk a little bit about cement, but cement is just absolutely enormous. How are you going to do that? How are you going to get your copper without creating carbon? How are you going to get your lithium without carbon emissions along the way? And steel?

Webb: I mean, you can’t make steel without coal. But it is a lot harder. And the majority of steel is still,

Conway: Oh, I mean, coal. Right. And even, even electric furnaces still use a fair bit of coal and they use a bit of gas as well. And so you, you’re still, you’re still kind of emitting carbon, but the point is not, you know, the point is not to treat that as a kind of, a reason for defeatism.

It’s just to say that the challenge is greater than people appreciate. I think that’s the thing. A lot of people would say, oh God, it’s impossible. It might not be impossible, but it’s just like, it’s definitely harder than you think.

Webb:  And it’s probably gonna take us longer than we think.

Conway: Should I give you a really good example? In the case of hydrogen, this is something I think, yeah, I’ve got left towards the end of the book. So green hydrogen, a lot of people hope will be the future because that will solve a lot of problems. If you have a lot of green hydrogen, you basically can run all of your wind turbines.

They can take that power, turn it into hydrogen that you can then store under the ground, by the way, in salt caverns, which, comes back to salt anyway, in order to, to make this hydrogen, which is going to be the solution to everything because it means you can just burn that hydrogen when the wind’s not blowing.

When the sun’s not shining, it is your backup. It solves everything. You can put it into trucks theoretically, and run them around instead of using diesel in order to create that hydrogen. Okay? The amount of energy you need is stupendous to run through those electrolyzers, and I’ll give you an example.

We, at the moment in the UK, we’ve got a couple of fertilizer plants. Actually, neither of them are running right now because gas is so expensive. Um, to run one of those fertilizer plants. It’s a kind of a medium-sized plant. Doesn’t create enough ammonia for the UK. At the moment, it takes natural gas in and fertilizer comes out, so it uses a natural gas as the process that creates that ammonia fertilizer.

It’s one of the most important processes in the modern world. Without these plants, we are all dead, or at least 50% of us are dead because 50% of the world is alive today thanks to nitrogen fertilizer we get from natural gas, almost entirely from natural gas, although in China they use coal still. If you wanted to replace that fertilizer plant, as I say, pretty medium-sized fertilizer plant with green hydrogen, with which you could then turn into ammonia because you can take that green hydrogen, turn it into ammonia. You would need the entire output of the biggest offshore wind farm in the world. So there’s one off the UK called Dogger Bank. There’s another called Hornsea 2.

You would need their entire output, which is enough for about a million homes, just to power that plant and get green hydrogen and then green ammonia. 

Webb: But then you’d also need a coal backup plant for when the wind wasn’t blowing.

Conway: Yeah. I mean, you know, it’s, but you see the thing, it’s the, the scale. That’s one tiny, that is one tiny part of the picture that very few people have considered and never enters the, the, the dialogue when we’re talking about net zero and just underlines that the scale of what we need to achieve is far greater. And, and also what that underlines as well, Merryn, isn’t it, is that energy density thing. You know, natural gas is incredibly energy dense compared with, you know, trying to to get the energy out of a wind turbine and electrolyze it and waste a lot of energy along the way and turn that into, into hydrogen. It is a very different world. It’s a very different challenge we’re facing.

It’s far greater than you possibly could have imagined, but by the same token, there is hope here because there’s opportunities, you know. We need so many more innovations. It’s not just innovations, you know, to try and crack all of those different little kind of things that we’ve heard about. Whether it’s, kind of improving lithium ion batteries, it’s all along the industrial chain, all the way from the mine through to the products that we’re using today.

It’s through to petrochemicals, it’s through to, um, to ammonia, like I say. There are so many different opportunities here. All of them pretty damn difficult. Um, but that to me spells an interesting, exciting time. 

Webb: Yeah, no, that definitely exists. Um, one of the things that I got the slight sense, surprised you, but a little when I was reading the, the chapter on oil is the extent to which fossil fuels still do fuel the world, and that number of 80% of global energy coming from fossil fuels just doesn’t go down.

I mean, it reflects the fact that we’re becoming more efficient at using all the fossil fuels that we do, but also the demand is constantly rising. So getting it below 80%. So it feels like whatever we do, um, we’re not really moving very fast in the end. And, uh, possibly if policymakers made more effort to come to terms with that, they’d find it easier to make policy going forward.

Conway: It’s very easy to, to just try and look for, for enemies and to look for villains. And, and to some extent, you know, fossil fuels in particular, um, oil has been cast as one of the villains. I mean, coal obviously as well. But even so, when you listen to protestors, like Just Stop Oil, for instance, in the UK and similar protestors around the world, one of the things they frequently point to is that the International Energy Agency has said that we don’t necessarily need any new licenses for oil exploration in the future.  Even that same IEA framework, even that same forecast still presumes that we’re gonna be consuming a lot of oil come 2050.

We’re still going to be consuming a lot of oil come 2060 as well. We still rely on a lot of oil and a lot of gas because right now there are still things that we can’t really do very well without them. You know, fertilizers being another, being a pretty good example.

Webb: Well, fertilizers seems an example that, you know, so many people don’t quite grasp. I was looking a photo of Just Stop Oil holding up something or the other, the other day, and one of them was holding a big banner saying You Can’t Eat Oil. Yeah, that’s, we literally eat oil.

Conway:  That’s what we eat, literally. Well, gas. 

Webb: Gas, we’re eating gas. We’re not eating oil, but we’re eating fossil fuels all the time, every day.

All of us. I mean…

Conway:  I think we’re munching them down, and it’s partly because it’s, it’s the fertilizer, it’s the most important bit. But also actually random things like, I don’t know if you’ve recently eaten salt and vinegar crisps. A lot of the time the vinegar taste in crisps actually comes from petrochemicals. Did you know that?

Webb: You’re telling me the vinegar, the vinegar in salt and vinegar crisps isn’t even vinegar. Next you’ll be telling me that chicken flavor crisps are vegan, which I think they’re actually. 

Conway: They possibly are. Oh, it, it’s everywhere. It’s everywhere. And, and, and I think that we won’t, we won’t do ourselves any favors by just demonizing kind of processes that we depend on to survive. I mean, that’s, that’s not to say we shouldn’t be finding ways of diminishing our reliance on the future, of course, which we’re doing and which we have plans to do.

But everyone is after just easy answers. Everyone is after villains and heroes. Everyone is after silver bullets. And the way, one of the reasons that I’ve been, you know, kind of focused on this and my background is slightly more in economics and, you know, other kind of reporting. But one of the reasons I’ve been drawn into this is that it felt like an area  where, too few people are talking about the nuance of complexity and the gray areas.

It’s too easy to just do kind of coverage of the, the green, you know, the energy transition and climate just in terms of villains and in terms of, you know, heroes. But that’s not the way the world works. And, you know, I wanted to try to explain a little bit more about the basics of how the world works. I should say it wasn’t the reason I started writing the book, the reason I started writing the book was I wanted to understand how the products that I was using every day actually got into my hand. I wanted to understand the journey that a semiconductor or the steel frame of my phone had been in before it arrived, uh, in my hand.

But then along that way you are like, well, there is this whole world and populated by amazing people, you know, engineers, scientists, physicists, manufacturers making this stuff that we rely on every day. Um, whereas this, you know, commentate, um, are living in this entirely separate universe and they’re just not engaged.

Webb: You know,  I was looking for work experience for my daughter, and, um, everything that I could find that I looked at for her involved, watching other people typing on computers and, we had this exact conversation at home. How can we find you work experience that allows you to actually see stuff being made, stuff being done, stuff being dug out of the ground that allows you to see something other than people making spreadsheets and typing blogs. Entry into that world if you’re not in it, it’s not necessarily the, the easiest thing.

Conway: Well that’s, I mean, actually that’s another kind of interesting point, which is that, that one of the wonders of the modern world, I suppose, is that we have managed to, and this, this is why we’ve managed to reduce the number of people it takes to get a lump of iron or copper or whatever it is out of the ground, you know, back, back in the day you needed thousand people, thousands of people working at these mines. These days so much of the process is automated that there’s so few people are needed to get the stuff out of the ground. And this is part of the explanation. I kind of think of it as people are really sniffy about things like resource exploitation.

They are sniffy about it. Cause it’s not, it’s not like semiconductors. You don’t have Moore’s law when it comes to copper or iron, do you? But actually you do. You do. Because if you look at the price of copper, not just in terms of it’s kind of real value of inflation adjusted value, but if you look at it in terms of the labor hours that are needed to go into it, you’ve had an extraordinary rise in productivity in the mining sector.

We’ve got so much better at getting stuff out of the ground thanks to big trucks, they’ve allowed us to get so much of this stuff out of the ground and keep the price low to allow countries like China and India to start to industrialize. If it wasn’t for this amazing productivity miracle, this undertold miracle.

Yeah, then you wouldn’t have had the kind of progress we’ve had. You wouldn’t have had the sheer number of people rising out of the poverty numbers that we’ve had. So there’s an amazing story here, but the corollary of that story is that there are fewer people than ever before working in the material world.

It’s not just economics, obviously, is it? It’s also then they’ve got the kind of national security question. You’ve got do we want to be so reliant on China? Because in a sense, the shadow hero protagonist of this book is also China, because in every single one of these materials, it’s basically pretty dominant.

And so do you still want to be kind of so reliant? What do you want to do about that? We are all, we’re all kind of aware of how reliant we are on, on China for stuff perhaps we’re not even aware of just how great that is. Um, and so again, whether it’s green tech, whether it’s plastics, whether it’s copper, you know, almost half of all of the world’s copper is refined in China.

You hear a lot of people talk about rare earth materials and how, look, it’s terrible. China has a massive stranglehold, which they do. Copper, you know, the majority of the world’s copper concentrate, which comes out of the mine. So there’s two types of the, you get the kind of some refined copper, but you also get copper concentrate, which is less refined.

The majority of that gets shipped over to China from all over the world. So it’s, you know, Indonesia, it’s Chile, it’s Papua New Guinea, it’s all of these places, and then it gets sent to China. And China is right at the heart of that supply chain now. And without an incredible increase in the amount of copper that we have, we are not gonna fulfill anything.

We’re not gonna be build able to build enough wind turbines. We’re not gonna be able to make enough solar panels. We’re not gonna be able to make enough electric cars and so…

Webb: And we’re also not going to be able to upgrade our grids to even begin to cope with the many intermittent sources of energy that come in. That’s also a major part of it.

Conway: Yeah. You need copper, you need a lot of aluminum for that as well. But particularly copper. And copper and iron, uh, you need electrical, steel, and copper for transformers. Transformers are one of the most exciting things in the world. No one talks about transformers, but these, you know, these boxes of copper and iron that sit somewhere and no one pays any attention to them and allow us to modulate between AC and DC and change the frequency are one of the most important things in the world. And for them, like you say, we need a lot of copper. We need a lot of copper for that. And we need to upgrade all our grids in the UK massively, uh, in the US as well, across much of Europe. And there you run into another issue, okay? Which the UK’s a really good example of that. We need to build a lot more pylons, um, to get us the power that we need for all these electric cars and stuff, but also to get it from the places where we’re generating that power right now. What’s fascinating about this material world filled with companies you’ve never heard of, you know, companies making poly silicon and companies making kind of random products that turn out to be the basis for Apple’s entire business and you know, Tesla’s entire business. One company that’s kind of interesting to me is called Prysmian, and they make….. I have no idea about what’s going on the corporate…this is not….

Webb:  This is not investment advice. Just to be clear.

Conway: Yeah, just fascinating. Because they make the cables that go under the sea. Okay. You know, you’ve probably seen some of the diagrams of these cables, copper in the middle, shielded with various different kind of bits of steel on the outside. 

Webb: And huge, right? The diameter of these things is whopping. 

Conway: They’re really big, they’re really good. Fiber optics are smaller, but yeah, copper is, copper is thick, particularly for a high voltage undersea cable. And we are going to have to make so many more of them. We’re going to have to lay so much cable in the coming years.

And it’s interesting. There is this company that basically dominate both the manufacturer of those cables and the laying of them. Um, which again, you find quite a few of these, these companies which dominate this world. You know, back to what I think is inspiring about this. Was it, Peter Thiel who said, where’s my flying car? You know, you gave me 160 characters or 240 characters, but where’s my flying car?

Webb: Yeah, totally fair.

Conway: Yeah. Well, it is, but here we are again. We’re starting with, we are building stuff. It’s beginning to happen, and in order to fulfill net zero, one of the inspiring and exciting things about it is it involves one of the biggest infrastructure opportunities, challenges that we have, that we’ve had for many decades, both in this country and elsewhere. We need to do it all over again. Imagine if we did have a global electricity grid, so you could have power from Morocco sent through to Europe, solar power from there.

You could have wind power from elsewhere. That, that’s quite an exciting story. But in order for it to happen, you need a lot more infrastructure. You need a lot more copper. You need a lot more of these cables to go down into the sea. And again, right now it’s quite hard to persuade anyone to open a new copper mine. And so the question is whether people are going to be willing enough to actually do the mining that we need to do in order to to get to net zero. 

Webb: Well, this is one of the big conversations in the investment markets in that historically everyone always says that the cure for high prices in the commodity market is high prices. Cause prices go up and then you have more exploration, more mines opening, and that brings prices down. Uh, but of course at the moment you look around the world and prices go up and who’s going to open a new mine in this environment? As you said, it’s incredibly difficult across the developed world. It’s difficult in Chile.

I’ve been reading a lot about that. There’s a lot of concern there about the lithium in particular in Chile, right. So, you know, as, as prices go up, who’s going to be the one who approves the new mines? It’s a very difficult argument to make, as you say, because there isn’t enough nuance in the debate where the argument really should be.

If you want to move to an environmentally superior world, you’ve got to dig the mines first.

Conway: I think that’s it. And I think the difficulty that the, the frustration I sometimes feel is when you talk to people who kind of very earnestly want us to reduce our carbon emissions and to fulfill all of these objectives.

One of the things they also don’t like is new mines. They don’t, they don’t like the mines and they don’t want the extra mining, but there is, it is just implausible to see. And then the argument is then, oh well we should just consume less. And of course that’s true. You know, we in this country and elsewhere could certainly consume a bit less, you know, we could maybe, could consume a lot less, but even if we did that, it still wouldn’t kind of make the difference.

Webb: Well, it wouldn’t begin to move the dial globally. That’s the key thing. What we do here makes no difference globally. No. And maybe we should just dig up all of Cornwall. I mean, there’s probably a lot of copper and lithium in Cornwall. Right. And there are talks about reopening mines. We could just dig the whole thing up. Yes. And that would be the environmentally friendly thing to do right now. Yeah. Would be to dig up Cornwall.

Conway: Yeah, totally. Because the grades that, some of the grades that are better than some of the grades you get in Chile. No joke. No joke. I mean there’s, you know, but I don’t know if anyone really wants to, to dig up all those holiday homes, but having been to a copper mine, actually a few copper mines, uh, you need to create some pretty enormous holes in the ground in order to do it. And so our willingness to do that, it does start to diminish when it’s in nice, pretty places. Um, but that’s, that’s right.

Webb: We’d rather dig up somebody else’s country, wouldn’t we?

Conway: Totally. And do it on the other side of the world, in a place like the Atacama Desert, where no one comes there and no one looks at it.

Uh, but God, those holes are massive, you know, they’re canyons. They are manmade canyons. So one of the great productivity achievements of, of the past few decades has been that we have managed it be even better at getting copper out of the ground. And as a result of that, all those, those doom-laden predictions about how we were going to run out of materials. Remember, you know, this is not the first time that there’s been this dialogue, the Club of Rome, limits to growth. The 1970s was all about how we were going to run out of stuff and we were going to destroy the world. That didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because we became so much better at getting ever more copper out of ever less promising oars.

So the grades of the rock that we get out of the ground, have become less promising and the stuff that we previously would’ve said as junk now turns out to be legitimate copper,  and the upshot is these holes have got even deeper. The question is whether we can have another one of those leaps again.

If we can, then maybe we can do kind of okay, get a bit, squeeze a bit more out of the existing mines. But I think even if you make all the most optimistic assumptions about that, you still need a shed load more copper mines. And right now the pipeline isn’t promising enough on copper.

Webb: Okay, well that’s optimistic. Realism is what I’m going to put you down as an optimistic realist.

Conway: It’s exciting. Yeah. And it’s energizing because we can make stuff.

Webb: And I just want to talk briefly about lithium. It’s the last chapter in your book and it’s the metal, I think what all the substance, material that when people run down the contents, when they get to lithium, it’ll be the first one they’ll think for themselves.

Lithium, is that really as important as oil and salt and sand?  Um, but it is for the future as opposed to, historically.

Conway: Yeah,  lithium is still incredibly, incredibly important. Um, it is there at the heart of pretty much every battery chemistry you’re talking about. Um, it’s not the only thing– we need nickel, we need manganese, cobalt in some places, but our ability to get enough lithium out of the ground is going to be one of the most telling, uh, questions in whether we can achieve the other part of net zero, which is, electrifying road transport and also, you know, providing the lithium that we’re using for talking on devices like this and the process of getting that lithium out of the ground. Well, it’s kind of fascinating. So I went out to Chile to go to the lithium ponds where it is got from under the ground. So the Atacama desert is this kind of crazy place in the dry, one of the driest deserts. Well, it’s the driest desert in the world. Um, where you can stand on this salt flat and I did and a few meters beneath your feet, it’s slightly terrifying because I was told later I shouldn’t have sit on the salt flat.

Because a few meters beneath your feet there is this gigantic underground reservoir of brine and it’s just been sitting there. This is strange, kind of spooky thing. You think about water you think might’ve been constantly in motion. But there’s this underground well, where lithium has been there for millions of years, and then we pump up the brine and then gradually precipitate away the other different salts in it.

It’s funny, funny thing is when, you know, if you read the book in sequence, there’s, there’s a large section on salt. Yeah. And it turns out that the way we, we, the way we make lithium, at least from these, from these, um, brine deposits, is basically the same as the way that we make salt. Uh, so you are evaporating away in those large ponds over, over a long period.

And again, the interesting thing in future is going to be whether we can get enough of it. Um, right now there’s far more lithium coming out of the ground in Australia because you can mine it as a hard rock and then ship it off to China to get refined, and then you can just get more out of the ground that way.

Whereas in Chile, you are basically having to wait for the sun to do its work. So evaporate over the course of a year or so. And so again, we fall back on our reliance on China. And, you know, there’s all of the same issues here. The environmental question, you know, we’re using the deploying water in one of the driest regions of the world.

It’s a totally pristine ecosystem. We have no idea what we’re doing to it, yet. The locals, the locals really don’t like it at all. And that’s happened and we’re only at the start of this for lithium. So, you know, that’s pretty kind of profound I think.

Um, I don’t think we’re going to have, I think we’re going to be able to get enough of this stuff, but what’s interesting with lithium as opposed to the other kind of materials I look at in the book is it’s just, it’s new. You know, we’ve got hundreds of years or thousands of years of experience of mining copper.

We only, you know, very recently decided that we like lithium for good reason. It’s about the best thing you can put in a battery. Um, but we don’t have much experience of mining it and how we do that and how we deal with a world which is less into mining now for this brand new beginning of exploitation. This is going to be a kind of an interesting one. I’m not sure where that’s going to kind of end up. 

Webb: Okay. Well hopefully not digging up all of Cornwall, but uh, we’ll see.

Conway: I mean, you know,  I’m up for digging parts of Cornwall because there’s loads of copper and wouldn’t it be great if we could make copper?We’ve got lots of titanium. I think there’s tungston. We’ve got tungston in the UK.

Webb: Yeah. We could live without Bodmin Moor really couldn’t we? Hate mail to the usual address. Carry on, Ed.

Conway: Well, we’ve got lithium in Cornwall, so,  there’s lithium, but the thing is the UK has always, you know, relied on other people to get, uh, to get its kind of metals. When we were in those early days of crossing the world with those cables, so the copper cables that, that were our first telecommunications network, the boats, the ships that were doing that discovered when they were dragging their kind of, the sounders across the bottom of the Atlantic, they discovered these things called polymetallic nodules.

Webb:  I was reading about those the other day.

Conway: Well, this is, this is the other frontier. So, polymetallic nodules, actually, I think they found them in the Pacific, because that’s where most of them are, are these little rocks that you find on the seabed, which are very dense, very high grades of a lot of the metals that people quite want these days.

So cobalt and copper and a few other things besides nickel, I think. And one of the big questions in the coming years again, is whether we are going to start mining under the sea. And so I have a whole chapter on this because actually it turns out there might be a whole lot more copper, in those deposits under the sea than anyone has accounted for at the moment, even in the official numbers and if we don’t want to mine on land, are we going to be any more likely to want to mine under the sea? Probably not. Cause that’s another, that’s an even more pristine ecosystem. 

Webb: But not only that, that’s an ecosystem that we don’t know nearly as much about yet. I mean, at least if we’re mining on land, we know what we’re doing.

We know what we’re destroying as we go. We understand these ecosystems relatively well. Whereas the ocean bottom, we don’t understand really anything about those ecosystems. We only just discovered these nodules. We have no idea what would happen if we went to scraped them up off the seabed.

Conway: Totally, totally. And one exception to that is just the things like the Salar de Atacama in, in Chile, where we really don’t know much about how that, how that really functions. But under the sea, under the sea, So totally pristine. We know so little about it.

What we do know is that whenever we go into a new habitat and plunder it, uh, there are consequences. Um, and yet that is where a lot of people are racing towards right now. I mean,  I think it’s probably less likely. I think what’s much more likely is that we, we just get better at mining the stuff from terrestrial mines.

But even so, the hunger for minerals is so great now that people are looking in all sorts of places to find this stuff. And the reluctance amongst many people on, on land to have mining near them is such that you know, if you don’t want to let them mine on land, then maybe you’re going to find the path of least resistance.

And right now that is actually a path of least resistance because, you know, you’ve got places like the International Seabed Authority, which are in the process of laying down the rules to allow deep sea mining. We don’t know, that’s an ongoing conversation right now, but it’s within a kind of regulatory body, which no one’s ever heard of frankly.

Uh, and there’s very little oversight. I went there, I went to Jamaica, where the International Seabed Authority is based. They’re the guys you know, who decide who is allowed to mine on the seabed. And it’s this sleepy place on the, on the seafront in Kingston. It’s rather delightful, but it feels like you’re going into a time capsule. It’s an old 1970s bond set, for like the Roger Moore era, but they still got the kind of phone booths with the 1970s era phones that you could kind of pick up and, and are still functioning. That is the front line for deep sea mining right now. And no one is quite sure what they’re gonna come up with right now.

So, we are in a really interesting moment where we’re testing our kind of limits of reluctance or willingness as to how much exploitation we’re going to be doing.

Webb:  Ed, last question because I’ve had you quite long. I must let you go. But how long before we can mine all these minerals in space and we can start worrying about all these conversations?

Conway: Well, I mean that’s that even less likely than under the sea, I think even less likely. Although I suppose you don’t have to worry about the kind of ecosystem thing, but…

Webb: We don’t? We have no idea either, do we?

Conway: Exactly. Maybe that’s, yeah, I know we blindly go out there and accidentally discover life and then destroy it.

The thing I definitely kind of learned in, in the process of kind of under, you know, exploring more about mining and, and not just mining, but the transformations we do to, to turn one thing into another is that, you know, in the end you do need to be able to do it in a way that isn’t going to bankrupt everyone.

Because part of human progress is about making these things cheaper. You know, making copper cheaper, making concrete cheaper so that you can concrete in places and, you know, lives are saved thanks to concrete. Because concrete floors in a house rather than mud floors are just far better for, for the inhabitants.

So our ability to get this stuff at scale and at reasonable price is everything. Right now, we, in the, the developed world have about, a lot of people kind of look at development statistics and they focus on GDP per capita. My favorite is steel per capita. So if you look at the amount of steel that we have, per head in most developed economies like the UK and the US it’s kind of about 15 tons per capita. In China, it’s about seven, eight tons per capita. And bear in mind that when we’re talking about the steel per capita, what does that mean? That means the steel around you in your life. It means your car. Most of your car is still made from steel, even though bits and pieces are made from aluminum, still steel.

It’s the building that you are, you know, you’re probably in right now. It’s the infrastructure, the high speed rail. Uh, the rails themselves, the trains, it’s the machines that make the things that you use. Because everything, if it’s not made of steel, it’s made with steel. So you need a hell of a lot of steel to have a developed economy, to have hospitals, to have infrastructure, to have the trappings that we all feel we deserve, you need those 15 tons of steel per capita. Okay. And we’re more or less flat at 15 tons. It’s not going up. So that’s kind of something we’re not increasing our consumption per capita of still.

But in the developing world and in the emerging economies, you know that amount of steel per capita is more like, well, I said in middle income, it’s more like kind of 7 or 6 tons. In parts of Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, it’s one ton or less. And if those economies are going to develop and become middle and then developed economies, middle income, and then high income economies.

They will need more steel. And infrastructure, if you’re going to build out kind of highways, you need steel, you need steel reinforcement for them. If you’re going to build out kind of rail, if you’re gonna build hospitals, you need steel. If you’re gonna build schools, you need steel. And making steel is massively carbon intensive, but it’s also something we do at scale.

So, you know, back to your question. Yeah, maybe at the margin there might be some mining of, of asteroids for certain rare materials. But what really matters fundamentally is being able to get this supposedly basic stuff and turn it into the lifesaving and life sustaining apartus that is around all of us all the time.

And we need to do more of it. And right now that’s massively carbon intensive, but who, you know, who are we to say to people in sub-Saharan Africa that you need to be constraining your natural demand for extra things, you know. 

Webb:  Your natural demand for higher living standards, we’ee saying they shouldn’t have them.

Conway:  Exactly, yes. And that’s reflected in the amount of steel that we are all consuming. It’s not, you know, so to make steel is really carbon intensive right now. And, and yeah. If, if you’re going to try and do it in a less carbon intensive way, it is far more expensive.

And so who are we again to say, you’re going to have to spend more for your steel than we would have to spend, or that we had to spend when we were developing. Those are naughty issues. They’re naughty, tricky issues with no straightforward answer, which is why it’s interesting. But unfortunately, you know, a lot of people would much rather think in just terms of easy questions, easy answers, black and white heroes and villains.

It’s not the way the world works, certainly not the kind of pragmatic material world that I’m trying to describe.

Webb: That you have described very well, Ed. I think we have to leave it there. Thank you so much for your nuanced optimism and as I say, everybody, please go out and buy Ed’s book. It will change the way you look at so many things and uh, you probably need the way you look at so many things changed just a little bit. Ed, thank you.

Conway: Thank you.

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