As the world electrifies to meet its decarbonisation targets, raw materials are needed more than ever. Net Zero is no longer an ‘if’, but ‘when’. And it’s mining that’s going to dig the world out of its deep climate change challenges. But, nowadays it matters where these raw materials are being sourced from – in particular, when suppliers are belligerent states.
The production of minerals, such as graphite, lithium and cobalt, could increase by nearly 500% by 2050, to meet the growing demand for clean energy technologies. More than three billion tonnes of minerals and metals will be needed to deploy wind, solar and geothermal power, as well as energy storage, required for achieving a below 2°C future – according to a recent World Bank ‘Minerals for Climate Action’ report. And then there are increasing commodity prices in the context of the invasion of Ukraine, with Russia – a big global supplier of raw materials – waging the war.
The COP26 summit (hosted in Glasgow in October/ November 2021) confirmed the enormity of the task in hand, echoed by significant pledges regarding C02 emission cuts, coal reduction, clean energy investment, minimising methane, deforestation promises and so on. But, from my point of view, an important part of the equation was missing from COP26 conversations: how will we source critical raw materials in a way that’s green, so that they aren’t laden with a heavy C02 emission or other environmental price tags? And therefore negating the climate benefits the end product is trying to achieve (such as EV batteries, wind turbines etc)?
Supply chain transparency
The responsibility, therefore, is on the shoulders of everyone involved in mineral and renewable energy supply chains. They must ensure that the transition to cleaner energy systems ‘does not come at the cost to the climate, the environment, and people – particularly communities directly affected by mining activities’. For mining companies, financial viability is no longer the main driver. For new exploration businesses, like ours, carbon neutral operations, sustainable, community and environmentally-friendly approaches are now important non-negotiables.
‘Blood diamonds of batteries’
It’s still unclear, however, where this leaves supply chains linked to mines accused of unethical practices – such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), home to two-thirds of the world’s cobalt production. Cobalt is a key component of rechargeable batteries in smartphones and laptops and lithium-ion batteries that power EVs – apart from those EVs that use lithium iron phosphate batteries instead. The metal has also been dubbed the ‘blood diamonds of batteries’ with supply involved in an ‘international cycle of exploitation, greed and gamesmanship’. But the world still needs the DRC’s cobalt.
Ethics vs necessity
Critical raw material supply is not only questionable in relation to unethical mining practices, ‘greed and gamesmanship’. Europe depends on Russia for 30% of its oil, which has been allowed to continue flowing despite the invasion of Ukraine. The conundrum the EU faces is clear: continue funding Russia by buying its oil, or make a stand and find a replacement on the European market. That could take years, with sky-high prices in the meantime.
In regards to other commodities, European Union leaders have pledged to cut their dependence on global suppliers of ‘food, microprocessors, drugs, raw materials and digital technologies’ in the wake of the invasion and become more self-reliant. In the words of the French President, Emmanuel Macron: “In the context of this crisis we are seeing how our food, our energy, our defence are all issues of sovereignty. We want to be open to the world, we want to choose our partners but not depend on any.”
When it comes to critical raw materials – so desperately needed in abundance for our clean energy transition – it’s clear that provenance is no longer a buzzword or an added commercial benefit. It’s now an ethical necessity.