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Extractable global resources and the future availability of metal stocks: “Known Unknowns” for the foreseeable future


  • West, James


The primary purpose of this article is to suggest that estimates of extractable global resources (EGRs) of metals made using current methodologies are so uncertain as to render them generally unfit for guiding policy with regard to resource depletion and governance. This situation is unlikely to change much for the foreseeable future, as the expensive geochemical sampling programs required to define metal ore deposits are driven by the short to medium term operational considerations of mining companies, with the determination of EGR being of little to no concern. Furthermore, it is shown that even if it became possible to estimate EGRs quite accurately, this in the absence of a detailed understanding of the post-mining disposition of metal stocks, and the feasible recovery and recycling rates for those stocks over the long term, would leave us little better positioned to determine the long-term availability of metals. Given this, trying to design policies for international governance of the extraction of metal ores, on the premise of extending their availability to future generations, is unlikely to be a productive investment of research effort. Meeting the challenge of maintaining metal supplies for future generations will be better served by continuing to improve our understanding the impacts of ever-increasing mining activity on natural systems, how improved mining practices might reduce this, and by following the fate of metals post-mining, and the implications for metals recoverability and recycling potential.

Suggested Citation

  • West, James, 2020. "Extractable global resources and the future availability of metal stocks: “Known Unknowns” for the foreseeable future," Resources Policy, Elsevier, vol. 65(C).
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:jrpoli:v:65:y:2020:i:c:s0301420719304374
    DOI: 10.1016/j.resourpol.2019.101574

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. James West, 2011. "Decreasing Metal Ore Grades," Journal of Industrial Ecology, Yale University, vol. 15(2), pages 165-168, April.
    2. James West & Heinz Schandl, 2018. "Explanatory Variables for National Socio‐Metabolic Profiles and the Question of Forecasting National Material Flows in a Globalized Economy," Journal of Industrial Ecology, Yale University, vol. 22(6), pages 1451-1464, December.
    3. Tilton, John E. & Crowson, Phillip C.F. & DeYoung, John H. & Eggert, Roderick G. & Ericsson, Magnus & Guzmán, Juan Ignacio & Humphreys, David & Lagos, Gustavo & Maxwell, Philip & Radetzki, Marian & Si, 2018. "Public policy and future mineral supplies," Resources Policy, Elsevier, vol. 57(C), pages 55-60.
    4. Mudd, Gavin M., 2010. "The Environmental sustainability of mining in Australia: key mega-trends and looming constraints," Resources Policy, Elsevier, vol. 35(2), pages 98-115, June.
    5. Henckens, M.L.C.M. & van Ierland, E.C. & Driessen, P.P.J. & Worrell, E., 2016. "Mineral resources: Geological scarcity, market price trends, and future generations," Resources Policy, Elsevier, vol. 49(C), pages 102-111.
    6. Henckens, M.L.C.M. & Ryngaert, C.M.J. & Driessen, P.P.J. & Worrell, E., 2018. "Normative principles and the sustainable use of geologically scarce mineral resources," Resources Policy, Elsevier, vol. 59(C), pages 351-359.
    7. Redlinger, Michael & Eggert, Roderick, 2016. "Volatility of by-product metal and mineral prices," Resources Policy, Elsevier, vol. 47(C), pages 69-77.
    8. T. E. Graedel & Julian Allwood & Jean‐Pierre Birat & Matthias Buchert & Christian Hagelüken & Barbara K. Reck & Scott F. Sibley & Guido Sonnemann, 2011. "What Do We Know About Metal Recycling Rates?," Journal of Industrial Ecology, Yale University, vol. 15(3), pages 355-366, June.
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    1. Ren, Kaipeng & Tang, Xu & Höök, Mikael, 2021. "Evaluating metal constraints for photovoltaics: Perspectives from China’s PV development," Applied Energy, Elsevier, vol. 282(PA).
    2. Fijorek, Kamil & Jurkowska, Aleksandra & Jonek-Kowalska, Izabela, 2021. "Financial contagion between the financial and the mining industries – Empirical evidence based on the symmetric and asymmetric CoVaR approach," Resources Policy, Elsevier, vol. 70(C).

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