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Few consumers are likely to be familiar with the uses of gallium or germanium. But the chemicals — which are used in solar panels, as well as optical fibres — have acquired newfound fame this month after China announced it would be restricting their export from August 1. The curbs, which seek to preserve Beijing’s “national security and interests”, are a reminder that the west needs to bolster its efforts in the global scramble to secure metals and minerals that are critical for the green transition and new technologies.
Demand for vital resources such as lithium, copper, cobalt and nickel is expected to more than double by 2030, as the world rushes to build electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels in mushrooming quantities. Investment in developing these raw materials rose by 30 per cent last year to more than $40bn, according to a report this week from the International Energy Agency. Since mining projects take anywhere from seven to 20 years to realise, accelerating extraction is crucial.
If all announced projects are delivered on time, the IEA forecasts supply to be sufficient to keep national climate pledges on track by 2030. That may be somewhat comforting — even if it means the world will still be behind on restricting warming to within 1.5C of pre-industrial levels. But it belies three inconvenient truths that the west needs to grapple with quickly.
First, China dominates critical mineral extraction and refining to an astonishing degree. Last year, its companies doubled their investment spending, compared with a 25 per cent increase on average for western mining groups such as BHP, Anglo American and Glencore. China also accounts for about 60 per cent of the world’s lithium processing; Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla, has dubbed lithium-based EV batteries “the new oil”. Beijing has snapped up deals, too, with nations across Africa and Latin America that are rich in critical mineral deposits. As geopolitical tensions mount, China’s potential to weaponise its control of resources, as Russia has done, puts western economies on edge.
Second, the west’s mining sector cannot solve critical mineral shortages on its own. Price volatility makes extraction risky; some rare raw materials also suffer from poor price transparency given limited public trading. China’s first-mover advantage in some countries as well as state support means it is competitive even when prices slump. High interest rates do not help either. A push from governments in areas such as price insurance and public-private partnerships, such as France’s recently announced €2bn investment fund, can help to de-risk projects.
Diplomatic outreach is just as important. The west will struggle to build ties with extracting nations in the developing world solely with promises to mine in a more environmental and socially responsible way. Sweeteners such as trade deals and support for infrastructure projects also matter. Mineral deposits at home warrant further exploitation. Canada and Australia have an abundance of minerals; even Britain’s unassuming Cornish region has significant amounts of lithium that it is now starting to develop. Yet permitting processes are slow and overcoming so-called “Nimbys” is not easy.
Finally, while national initiatives are emerging, co-ordination between western partners is key. Joint financing efforts could help bring scale to projects. Exploration of the seabed, which is largely untapped, also offers huge scope for new rare metal deposits but environmental standards are not yet agreed. Research partnerships are promising, too. For example, sodium — which is more abundant than lithium — was recently found to be effective in energy storage batteries.
Over the past decade, the west has woken up to the threat of climate change. Now it needs to wake up to the necessity of securing the materials that power the green transition.