These metals will take center stage and will be as essential as coal was in the 19th century.
After a century of geopolitical tensions over access to oil , experts fear that the energy transition will create, especially in Europe , new dependencies on crucial metal -producing countries for low-carbon technologies and the planet’s electrification.
What are the climate transition metals?
Cobalt , nickel , manganese , and lithium conduct electricity in car batteries ; rare earth metals (neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium, etc.) are used in the manufacture of hard disks or permanent magnets for wind turbines; copper and aluminum generally conduct electricity; platinum is used for hydrogen.
All these metals allow industry, electronics, transport or energy systems to abandon the use of hydrocarbons and stop emitting greenhouse gases that warm the planet.
These matters will be at the center “of efforts to decarbonize and electrify the economy as we move away from fossil fuels,” says a report by the consulting firm McKinsey published in early 2022.
They will be as essential as coal was for steam engines in the 19th century or oil in the 20th century.
Strategic metals: will they be scarce?
According to the World Energy Organization , global demand for these metals could quadruple by 2040 if the world commits to the Paris Climate Agreement.
In this energy transition , more metals would have to be produced between now and 2050 than humanity has produced in its entire history, estimates Olivier Vidal, from the CNRS Institute of Earth Sciences in Grenoble.
On the availability of materials, there are two opposing views: some experts anticipate scarcity, while others affirm that technological evolution and recycling will allow sustaining the increase in production.
According to a study by the University of Louvain, Europe is exposed to a “critical shortage in the next 15 years, especially of lithium , cobalt , nickel , copper and rare earth metals “ .
The European continent, which imports almost all of these materials, would only be able to cover between 5 and 55% of its needs by 2030, although it still has untapped resources, such as cobalt, gallium, germanium and lithium, says the Alliance Union of Raw Materials (ERMA).
Although it is necessary that “mining permits” be granted, emphasizes its president, Bernd Schaefer.
New lithium exploitation projects are being created , including one in France, announced Monday by the Imerys group.
The United States has just opened its first cobalt mine in decades in the state of Idaho, and automakers like Tesla want to invest in mining operators.
Which countries produce these metals?
The cobalt market is dominated by a major player at each end of the value chain: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) covers 70% of global production and China more than 50% of refining.
South Africa represents 37% of world manganese production and Guinea, 22% of bauxite (used to make aluminum).
As for lithium , the main producers are Australia , Chile and Argentina , although Bolivia has the largest unexploited reserves. Peru also has reserves of this mineral.
Strategic metals: a new geopolitical challenge
“The triangle of oil and gas – Saudi Arabia , Russia and the United States – has ruled the world for 40 years. A monopoly that will leave little room for a bipolarization of the world between the United States and China , large consumers of metals from the energy transition”, considers Philippe Varin, author of a report on the supply of the French industry in mineral raw materials.
In Africa and elsewhere, China and its companies have taken “40% control of the value chains for the metals needed to make batteries. This change in the geopolitical landscape will be a generator of tensions,” he considers. .
These materials “could be the object of a confrontation between China and the United States in the coming years,” agrees Emmanuel Hache, from the IFP Energies nouvelles research center.