Raw materials are present in the ground all over the world but some are more common in certain areas than others.
These minerals and metals are used in many technologies, from smartphones to wind turbines and electric car batteries. And as countries around the world are setting out to reduce carbon emissions, the demand for clean technologies is increasing, and with it so is the demand for raw materials.
K.C. Michaels is a legal advisor and critical minerals expert at the Internation Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organisation analysing data on the energy sector worldwide. “Essentially all of the clean energy technologies that we need to decarbonise the energy system require large amounts of minerals and metals,” he explains.
Electric vehicle (EV) batteries for instance need large amounts of lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite. While rare earth elements are mainly used in permanent magnets for EV motors and wind turbines.
But where do we get them from?
“The first challenge is the availability of those critical raw materials,” explains Dario Liguti, the director of sustainable energy at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.
“The production of some of those materials is highly concentrated in certain countries today,” he adds. More than three-quarters of the global production of critical raw materials used for energy comes from just three countries.
China leads with 66% of the global supply share, followed by South Africa with 9% and the Democratic Republic of Congo with 5%. And in some cases, a single country can be responsible for over half of the global output.
“For example, cobalt supply from the Democratic Republic of Congo is about 60 or 70% of the world production,” Liguti explains.
China also plays a huge role in refining, a necessary step before the materials can be used. So for example, even though cobalt is primarily mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, almost all of it goes to China for processing. This concentration of resources can lead to major issues in supply, particularly for places like Europe, which produces very little in-house.
“If we imagine a world where there are ten suppliers of lithium and one of those suppliers has a strike or some sort of issue and a shutdown, there are a lot of opportunities to switch to other suppliers. But if we imagine a world where there are only two suppliers and there’s a disruption from one, then there’s a really big impact,” Michaels says.
“Their demand is already right now explosive and it will only become so as the transition towards a less carbonised energy system becomes even more important,” Liguti says.
The International Energy Agency projects that if the world stays on track to meet its global climate goals and reach net zero by 2050, the overall demand for minerals is going to quadruple by 2030. “This is a huge increase in just the next seven or eight years,” Michaels says.
“When we start to look at specific minerals, then the demand increase can be much higher. Specifically for lithium, it’s as many as 40 times, depending on the scenario,” he adds.
So can the current supply keep up with growing demands?
“There is a real risk that we won’t be able to ramp up production fast enough to meet these goals,” Michaels says. “Even if we could have 100% re-use of all the minerals and metals that are out there today, we’re still not even close,” he adds.
According to Liguti, increasing production won’t be enough. “The quantities necessary for the green transition are staggering,” he says.
“The answer to that demand is not only through increased primary production, but it is as well through the increase of the recycling and the reuse of those raw materials, on establishing the circular economy, the traceability of those minerals, so we exactly know at which stage of the value chain those raw materials are,” he explains.
Securing the supply is not the only issue at stake. Mining can have a destructive impact not only on the environment but also on local communities.
“While we develop lithium mines and cobalt mines and manganese mines, even if the scale of operations is smaller, we don’t want to do the same errors that we did when we started exploiting oil and gas, ” Liguti says. So we have to consider what happens to mines at the end of their lifecycle, he adds.
This means looking at “what to do with the mine, how to involve the local communities, how to account for negative externalities on the environment and mitigate those aspects”, he explains.
So how can we ensure a sustainable and ethical supply chain of raw materials?
One of the solutions, experts say, is supply chain diligence. “Companies will be required to look into their suppliers and really try to understand where the materials are coming from, what the risks are and what they can do as purchasers to reduce those risks,” Michaels explains.
This principle will be used in the new EU battery regulations, to ensure that batteries on the European market are sustainable and circular throughout their whole lifecycle, from the sourcing of materials to their collection, recycling and repurposing.
“It can lead to real efforts to improve the situation because once the downstream companies, the purchasing companies and the car manufacturers become engaged, then they can bring about a lot of change. They can speak to their suppliers, they can push for new standards and push for improvement,” Michaels adds.
Innovation can also play a big role in reducing the demand on raw materials.
New technologies can help improve how we use and mine these materials but also find alternative sources, develop substitutes and improve recycling. “A raw material might not be critical a few decades from now as they were not critical a few years ago,” Liguti says.
“But they are critical now and we need to take care of that. So in 20 years, we don’t have to look back and say: “Oh, we did the same errors that we did 100 years ago when we started exploiting oil and gas”,” he adds.