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The World Bank estimates that nonrenewable mineral resources play a dominant role in countries that collectively account for a quarter of world GDP.

Industrial revolutions of the past have developed nations, improved economies and driven mass education, but each time, with more minerals and metals to keep it up. People were using candles 200 years ago before incandescence, and now LED lights are even more efficient. From burning wood to coal, then oil and natural gas, and now, nuclear and renewables – every move entrepreneurs make towards sustainability requires more mining. 

Mining operations in underdeveloped countries create economies, new jobs and wealth, improving their overall socioeconomic status. The World Bank estimates that “nonrenewable mineral resources play a dominant role in 81 countries that collectively account for a quarter of world GDP, half of the world’s population, and nearly 70 percent of those in extreme poverty.

With the emerging Industry 4.0 revolution, now is an ideal time to innovate. Automation can optimize natural resource processing while minimizing waste in the air, water and land. Machine learning and artificial intelligence will increase processing efficiency and further reduce adverse effects. Instead of limiting access, governments should collaborate closely with energy and mining companies and focus on informing and educating their citizens on how mining benefits their economies and improves their quality of life.

Sustainable products need raw materials

As the world’s population continues to grow exponentially and developing countries build their critical infrastructures, mining will need to grow exponentially, too. A typical vehicle uses 80 pounds of copper, but an electric vehicle needs 200, about the same as a three-bedroom home. This means that adding even one electric car per household will nearly triple the demand for copper. According to a 2020 World Bank study, aluminum already accounts for 85% of solar photovoltaic components, and experts predict that the aluminum used in cars, which improves their fuel efficiency and reduces CO2 emissions, will increase 60% by 2025. More sustainable materials can only come through more mining.

Processing the materials amplifies the need for them

Beyond the raw materials themselves needed to make sustainable technologies and products, mining is also what turns those raw materials into usable commodities. If we want more sustainable energy and infrastructure, mining is the only way to support it — and sustainable mining is the only way to preserve the resources needed while also preserving the earth that creates them.

The U.S. has well-regulated labor and safety rules and access to better technology, but a history of pollution paired with a lack of understanding from the general public and policymakers has led to reactive policies that limit exploration and permitting. As a result, U.S. sustainability is dependent on foreign raw materials. In 2018, the U.S. was 100% reliant on foreign sources for the arsenic, gallium and indium needed for solar panels, the rare-earth elements for domestic wind turbine demands and the graphite and manganese for batteries. 

Meanwhile, mining companies build in countries with more relaxed regulations, letting them pollute the environment and deplete their resources if it yields greater profits. We gain nothing from strict U.S. regulations that make us dependent on buying our raw materials from these countries that continue to damage the planet. To take the lead in sustainability, entrepreneurs should set an example by moving away from the mentality of profits-above-all and pushing for a global consensus on common-sense regulations, emissions and responsible mining. 

We need people to be informed and support this essential industry if we ever want to realize sustainable development and create a future where businesses of all kinds are able to not only survive, but thrive. As unlikely as it seems, the key to reducing emissions and improving people’s lives is mining.