Critical raw materials – those resources vital to the economy with a high risk of supply disruption – have made the headlines before and they’re back on the agenda now. This time they are likely to remain a top story for a long time, as governments and businesses the world over have finally realised how essential they are for low carbon technologies. And some are belatedly scrambling to secure and, in some cases, stockpile supplies.
As with domestic stockpiling – something we remember all too vividly from lockdown times – when scarcity raises its head, people get desperate. The Australian brawl over toilet roll that went viral and saw two women charged with affray was unseemly but had a depressing logic to it. There was only so much to go round. It was a case of you win or you lose.
Hoarding critical materials will hold back climate action
While the logic may be similar when it comes to critical raw materials, the global consequences of countries hoarding them are serious. As with loo roll in 2020, there are only so many critical raw materials readily available. If one country succeeds in stockpiling the lion’s share and isn’t willing to share it at any price, it will successfully decarbonise its economy while others have to go without and can’t. This has serious implications for global action on climate change. If one nation is able to transition faster and more cheaply to a net zero economy but, in so doing, deprives other countries of the ability to do the same, they, like the rest of the world, will still have to deal with the devastating consequences of climate change. When it comes to climate change, it is a case of we are all in it together: either we all win or we all lose.
This problem has, of course, been acknowledged: through the UNFCCC, there is a framework for dealing with climate change internationally, even if it’s not perfect. But the pressure for countries to work together to secure, and sustainably and fairly distribute, the resources needed to deal with climate change is only just gathering pace.
The approach taken by most of the world’s largest and strongest economies so far has been to secure these valuable resources for themselves. This includes, belatedly, the UK, which published its critical minerals strategy, Resilience for the future, earlier this year. This makes sense, not least given threats to national security from supply chain disruption, as has recently been highlighted by both the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
It is especially true if we acknowledge that it is China that has already secured the lion’s share. Its dominance has decreased since 2010, when it controlled nearly all of the world’s supply of rare earth elements and then suddenly cut exports by 40 per cent. But it’s still dominant: in 2020, China controlled 60 per cent of global mine production of rare earths and processed even more, some claim as much as 85 or 90 per cent. China also controls a disproportionate share of some other critical raw materials. This includes cobalt reserves, mainly found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where China already commands over 40 per cent of cobalt production and has recently taken steps to extend its influence.
Countries are just realising the consequences
At some point, though, the global community must face up to the rather pressing problem of mutually assured destruction that will result if only a few countries have access to the resources needed to decarbonise. There are moves in this direction, including a new Minerals Security Partnership convened by the US, in a clear attempt to counter China’s dominance in the mining and processing of critical materials. Through it, countries, including the UK, the EU, Canada, Japan and Korea, aim “to bolster critical mineral supply chains essential for the clean energy transition”, though it will probably be a number of years before these efforts deliver new sources of supply. UN bodies are also starting to think about it and, in advance of the COP27 climate change conference in Egypt this November, the UN Economic Commission for Europe is holding five roundtables to develop a roadmap for sustainable production of critical materials.
Both of these initiatives – like the UK’s own strategy – recognise that a more circular economy can play a vital role. This is music to our ears, as we’ve been calling for it for years. Our 2018 report Completing the circle highlighted how reusing the materials already in our economy could reduce the impacts of primary sourcing. The mining, processing and refining of critical raw materials can cause considerable environmental and social harm and run counter to climate change, biodiversity and human rights goals. The warm words from our government are yet to be matched with supporting policy though. The UK’s strategy failed to do much beyond reiterating repeatedly delayed policy plans, which are limited to extended producer responsibility and waste electricals regulations.
Cutting energy demand is being ignored as a solution
What is of even more concern, though, is that both international and domestic efforts are completely ignoring the lowest risk and most environmentally and socially sound option. While reducing reliance on potentially hostile suppliers is a good idea, and reusing and recycling materials already in our economy a better one, the best option would be to reduce the demand for critical raw materials in the first place.
Cutting demand means insulating our homes, reducing the energy that products need to run, keeping existing products in use for longer, and making public transport and alternatives to using the car more efficient and accessible. Green Alliance’s report on critical raw materials last year for our Circular Economy Task Force found that, by using these measures, the UK could halve its total use of some – notably cobalt and lithium – by 2030, compared to the current trajectory.
And this is crucial as global demand, on the current trajectory, will see demand for these materials soar. Demand for cobalt is expected to increase by 2,000 per cent and demand for lithium by 4,000 per cent by 2040, according to the IEA. But it doesn’t have to be that way if demand reduction and the circular economy are taken seriously. Clearly the best strategy is not to just keep digging.
The electrical equipment we use every day contains critical raw materials. E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world and the UK is one of the worst offenders. We will be discussing this issue and what should be done about it at our in person event, jointly hosted with Material Focus, on 11 October. Find out more and register here.