In a complex world, many people struggle to appreciate where things come from — including food, energy, and water, and the materials that make everything from planes to cars and mobile devices.  Lack of understanding also explains why we accept the numerous stories claiming imminent shortages of critical natural resources while also believing that amazing new technologies based on complex resource-dependent materials will change the world.  Both of these cannot be true — at least at face value.

Climate change and the human influence on it are well documented in  scientific and popular literature, but understanding the details of Earth’s climate system and how it will change over time is challenging.  Understandably, we worry about the potential impact on wildlife, agriculture, and humans, and we debate the solutions.  But how many people realize that mitigating the impacts of climate change requires resources?

In 2017, the World Bank attempted to estimate the amount of metal needed to produce sufficient renewable energy, battery storage, and electric cars to minimize climate change-related temperature increases by 2050.  The metal demand is significant for a 4oC increase and dramatic if limited to 2oC. This new demand includes major commodities — copper, aluminum, nickel, and zinc — and is even more significant for the rare metals used in clean energy technologies, such as lithium and cobalt. There are many assumptions in these scenarios, not the least being the probability of new technologies that may be less metal intense, but even if the results are significantly wrong, we can still anticipate major increases in the demand for metals.

Increasing the supply of metals in the next 30 to 40 years will require more mines with more energy and water for metal production, and this may lead to more issues related to permitting, community support, and the environment.  Simply put, if we are going to produce more metals in order to make the world a better place for humans, we must do it more efficiently and responsibly or else we will be no further ahead.  The same arguments hold for energy in general and water in many places.  Ultimately, a basic standard of living for an increasing global population, combined with technological advances that lead to a more sustainable world will require abundant resources that must be delivered in a way that benefits all.

In June 2018, these challenges will be addressed and debated at a major international conference in Vancouver, BC called Resources for Future Generations (rfg2018.org). Participants will examine the topics of energy, minerals, and water from technical and societal perspectives. The source of these natural resources in the Earth and ways to improve discovery and responsible extraction will be addressed. The conference will also focus on the roles of industry, governments, Indigenous peoples, and communities — discussing and evaluating the issues and opportunities for the future.

Most importantly, young people will be encouraged to participate in the conference and the resource debate.  They will be our future consumers, problem solvers, and protectors of the environment,  hence the title of the conference.