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The Signal
The New Gold
What’s driving a global rush for critical minerals? Lisa Sachs on the environmental challenges of clean technology.
(Originally published 2022 | 03.18)
On the shore of the Congo River in Kinshasa sits the Fleuve Congo Hotel, a five-star hotel with a weekly pool party in a country where most people subsist on less than $2 a day. The hotel hosts an ongoing stream of prominent guests, including the former NBA All-Star Dikembe Mutombo, the Senegalese-American musician Akon, and the founder of the Blackwater private-security firm, Erik Prince, as well as investors from Western Europe, Russia, and China. The Fleuve’s high-profile residents typically come to the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.) after the country’s main source of wealth—its minerals. But they’re not usually there for diamonds or other precious stones; most are there to compete for the country’s stores of cobalt. The D.R.C. has more of it than any other country in the world, which is now driving geopolitical competition there, not just among businesses but between the U.S. and Chinese governments. Why cobalt?
Lisa Sachs is the director of the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment at Columbia University and the vice-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Mining & Metals. According to Sachs, cobalt—along with lithium, copper, nickel, and other critical minerals, as they’re called—are essential for building vitally important new technologies, particularly for the kind of products necessary to reduce fossil-fuel consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions. Critical minerals are the main building blocks of electric-vehicle batteries and potentially key for producing, distributing, and storing clean, renewable energy. And yet, Sachs says, mining these minerals comes with substantial environmental and social costs. The mines for them tend to be powered by fossil fuels, and they tend to deplete and contaminate local water supplies, worsening global warming both directly and indirectly. In the D.R.C. specifically, cobalt and other minerals are often mined by child laborers and under dangerous conditions. Globally, China now controls much of the mining of critical minerals, particularly lithium and cobalt, which has led to a complex geopolitical dynamic around a type of natural resource likely to become only more important.
Michael Bluhm: Why are critical minerals so important?
Lisa Sachs: A lot of people don’t realize that meeting society’s material needs in the coming decades will require a tremendous volume of mined materials. The world’s population continues to grow, and it’s urbanizing, meaning more construction, more power grids, more fiber optic cables, and so on.
The massive energy transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources will take a huge amount of mined materials for generation, transmission, distribution, and storage—for solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries. Each component of the energy transition needs minerals. Critical minerals are essential components of those technologies, especially—but not only—for the energy transition.
There isn’t one agreed set of critical minerals. Each country has a list of them; the lists overlap, but they’re not the same. They include cobalt, nickel, copper, lithium, manganese. It’s not a static, closed list, though. The materials we need are sure to change. We’re constantly innovating for efficiency, or when the supply chain is expensive or risky, so technologies are evolving and the universe of critical minerals and the demand for critical minerals is always in flux.
Bluhm: You say demand for these minerals will increase. What’s driving the business of critical minerals now?
Sachs: There are four important dynamics. First, we need to massively ramp up the production of renewable-energy technologies—not just solar panels and turbines but also distribution grids, batteries, storage, and so on.
Second, where are we going to get these minerals? There’s already been a scramble to get them and geopolitical tension around access to them. Access is an important dynamic because it concerns who mines the minerals and what supply chains look like.
Third, there are really important environmental and social dynamics. Mining has substantial environmental and social costs, despite decades of trying to make mining more sustainable. How are we going to meet our material needs in a way that doesn’t continue to devastate the planet and cause social disruption?
Fourth—and it’s related to climate—is the growing attention to circularity: reusing products more than making new products. We know we need these minerals for the energy transition, but what are other ways to meet these needs than through mined products? How can we make our whole economy more sustainable?
Those are the four overwhelming dynamics: meeting growing need; dealing with the geopolitics of supply chains; minimizing environmental and social effects; and exploring more sustainable uses for these materials, so that we don’t need to mine as much to meet our increasing material needs.
Albert Hyseni
Albert Hyseni
More from Lisa Sachs at The Signal:
Mining has always come at environmental and social costs. It’s inherently extractive, whether it’s underground or open-pit. It requires digging up the Earth, disrupting biodiversity, sometimes at substantial and irreversible scales. Mining and processing require enormous amounts of water, and both divert water from other purposes that can be core to livelihoods. Both discharge waste, too, into waterways used for other purposes, including human consumption and agriculture, with potentially devastating consequences—to people and to marine life. Mining and processing are also very energy-intensive. Most energy for mining comes from fossil-fuel sources. More mining and more processing mean more emissions. And mining has historically been implicated in terrible violations of human rights and social disruptions. If a mine is under or near a community, it can mean the displacement of that community, with major consequences for livelihoods and culture. Heritage sites have infamously been cleared to make way for mines.”
These are strategic minerals for most countries. They’re critical to U.S. energy goals. They’re critical to U.S. national security. But all countries want to ensure a reliable supply of these materials for their domestic strategic purposes. Their mining and production have been increasingly concentrated, and China dominates a lot of that. The geopolitical concern is, a concentration of access to the supply of any of these minerals presents a risk. It exacerbates geopolitical tensions—but it’s also simply a geopolitical issue that has to be resolved.”
Every country has government-led initiatives to develop resilient and secure supply chains for critical minerals. Those efforts include the innovation of alternatives, strategic expansions into new mine sites, trying to develop new processing capabilities domestically, investing in recycling and reuse. Governments in the U.S., EU, Japan, and elsewhere are trying all these things in the interest of energy security and independence from China. But there are challenges. In the U.S., there’s a lot of resistance to new lithium mining because of the environmental and social consequences. Host communities don’t want lithium mining. But securing the materials needed for a global energy transition is a global challenge. It’s not 193 domestic challenges. It’s inefficient and unfortunate that we’re securing our energy and material needs in this competitive way, rather than having some mechanism that facilitates global coordination, minimizes impacts, and maximizes reuse and alternatives. There’s a real case for global coordination and cooperation, but that’s not happening yet.”
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