The world’s supply of critical minerals is vulnerable to disruptions that could slow the transition to clean energy because their mining and refining are concentrated in the hands of a few companies and countries, an international renewable energy body said on Tuesday.
Those minerals, used to build clean technologies from wind turbines to electric cars, have drawn increasing interest from national governments eager to cut emissions and fight climate change — an effort that could be slowed if countries don’t work together to diversify the sources of the materials, the International Renewable Energy Agency warned in a new report provided to POLITICO ahead of its release later this week.
IRENA, an intergovernmental organization that counts more than 160 countries as members, cited the limited capacity for mining and refining critical minerals even though it noted there was no scarcity of mineral reserves in the ground. And it warned potential supply disruptions could lead to short-to-medium term market constraints due partly to to under-investment in mining and processing.
The global energy transition is increasing the demand for several critical minerals, said IRENA Director-General Francesco La Camera, raising the need to develop policies that will help expand the number of sources and the countries that can benefit from their production.
“The most important thing is to put in place the mining and environmental [and] social policies that can in some way reevaluate the way that mining [has been] performed in the past, in this new era of the mineral and the rare earth,” La Camera told POLITICO.
The surging deployment of green technologies has already increased demand for minerals like lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper. The market for energy transition minerals reached $320 billion last year and is set for continued growth, the International Energy Agency said in a separate report this week.
Republican lawmakers have cited the U.S. reliance on imports of critical minerals as a crucial flaw in President Joe Biden’s drive to sharply expand green energy, saying the fast rollout of EVs, solar power and wind turbines will increase dependence on countries like China.
IRENA said a small number of countries play an outsized role in the mining and processing of critical materials. Australia, for example, mined 47 percent of the world’s lithium last year, while China led in graphite output with a 65 percent market share. The Democratic Republic of Congo mined 70 percent of the world’s cobalt.
The concentration becomes more pronounced in the processing stage, the report said. China accounts for all of the refined supply of natural graphite and dysprosium, a rare earth element used in magnets for electric vehicles and wind turbines. And it refines 70 percent of the world’s cobalt and almost 60 percent of the lithium and manganese.
A few major companies also dominate the mining industry, making it highly concentrated, according to the report, with the top five mining companies controlling 61 percent of lithium output and 56 percent of cobalt output.
By contrast, critical mineral reserves are widely distributed around the globe, presenting opportunities to diversify mining and processing. Developing countries account for much of the global production of materials essential to the energy transition although some of them have much smaller shares of global production than reserves, the report said. Bolivia, for one, has the largest lithium reserves in the world, but it produced less than 1 percent of the supply in 2021.
Those types of constraints mean that geopolitical risks ranging from external shocks, export restrictions, mineral cartels, political instability and market manipulation could increase the risks of supply shortages.
IRENA called for a new approach to tap the extractive commodities essential to the energy transition by creating more inclusive, ethical and sustainable value chains.
La Camera urged countries to strengthen collaboration on critical materials to help reduce the geopolitical risks of concentrated supply chains, particularly by enabling mineral-rich developing countries to increase their role in the supply chain.
“If policies are put in place, they can favor the decentralization of the supply chain, building the manufacturing capacity in Africa or in Southeast Asia to decentralize the supply chain, and also trying to capture the part of the value chain in the developing country that [has] the reserve,” he said.