Lampoon, The world's biggest cobalt production in Congo, image Raconteur

How can the UK government secure the raw materials needed for the green transition?

The UK’s demand for lithium could reach 550,000 tons by 2050, while the country may use 240,000 tons of lithium and 90,000 tons of cobalt between now and 2035

A considerable amount of everyday appliances and commodities we use contain components made from critical raw materials like lithium, cobalt, gold, and rare earth elements (REEs). Since manufacturers employ such materials to produce devices like computers, cell phones, and batteries, these elements play an invisible but crucial role in our lives and society. The mining and processing of these materials have a substantial environmental and social impact, which has to be managed and mitigated since the switch to green energy relies on such raw materials, vital for green technologies. To ensure that the green revolution is beneficial for the people and the environment and part of a broader just transition, a sustainable supply of these raw materials has to be secured. This is together with a reduction in energy demand, efficiency improvements, and an increase in recycling. 

What are critical raw materials? Their use and origin

A stable and unhindered supply of raw materials is vital for our current economy. These materials are linked to the industry as they make up parts of a wide range of goods. Additionally, they are also required for the transition to clean energy as they are used to manufacture solar panels, electric vehicles’ batteries, energy-efficient lighting, and wind turbines. 

The 2020 EU list of critical raw materials, the fourth of its kind, contains thirty materials. Among them are lithium (Li) and cobalt (Co) which are crucial in the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries as essential elements for efficient electricity transport — (European Commission, 2016, Assessment of potential bottlenecks along the materials supply chain for the future deployment of low-carbon energy and transport technologies in the EU). 

In geographical terms, the supply of critical raw materials is not widespread. Ninety-eight percent of the EU’s supply of rare earth elements (REE) comes from China, while Turkey provides ninety-eight percent of the EU’s supply of borate (European Commission). 

China dominates the global mine production. It holds sixty percent of the total and owns forty percent of the rare earth elements reserves (United States Geological Survey, 2021, Commodity statistics and information). China controls over forty percent of the cobalt production in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where more than two-thirds of the world’s cobalt production comes from (US Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2021). 

The role of critical minerals in clean energy transitions?

According to the global study, The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions by the International Energy Agency, as the share of renewables in new investment has increased, the average amount of minerals needed for a new unit of power generation capacity has risen by fifty percent since 2010, and our demand for these materials is set to grow. 

In fact, the study reports that, in case of a fast transition to clean energy that would allow us to achieve net-zero globally by 2050, we will require six times more mineral inputs by 2040 than today. In scenarios characterized by a rise of low-carbon power generation, the mineral demand for electric vehicles (EVs) and battery storage would be a dominant force behind the increase in demand for minerals, growing at least thirty times by 2040. In the Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS), lithium demand would experience the most rapid growth, as it would rise by more than forty times by 2040. 

The growth of mineral demand comes with challenges. The sub-par management of the environmental and social impacts from mineral development, will bring about an array of negative consequences such as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, biodiversity loss, social disruption, water depletion, air pollution, air pollution, corruption, misuse of government resources and human rights abuse. This would slow the clean energy transitions and hinder the chance of a fair and just transition. 

Lampoon, The rare earth elements (REE)
The rare earth elements (REE) are a set of seventeen metallic elements. These include the fifteen lanthanides on the periodic table plus scandium and yttrium

How can the net-zero transition and social and environmental sustainability combined? 

Energy demand reductions, better management, and the establishment of a comprehensive circular economy policy.  According to the report, Critical point: securing the raw materials needed for the UK’s green transition published by the British charity Green Alliance and authored by Susan Evans, Heather Plumpton and Libby Peake, lithium and cobalt demand, related to electric vehicle batteries is set to be gargantuan. In fact, the British cumulative demand for lithium could reach 550,000 tons by 2050, while the United Kingdom could have utilized 240,000 tons of lithium and 90,000 tons of cobalt between now and 2035.

In this scenario, the UK is on track to use more than its global fair share of the analyzed critical raw materials by 2035. The situation would worsen by 2050, employing one and a half times its fair share of lithium by 2035 and over four times by 2050. A similar scenario is predicted for cobalt consumption, as the country would use twice its fair share of cobalt by 2035 and over five times by 2050.  

In the report, the authors proposed a strategy that would allow the UK to maintain its supplies of critical raw materials. The guiding principles include setting an ambitious environmental mandate for the new critical minerals strategy and expert committee. This would be independent and representative of the industry, academia, and non‑governmental organizations. The government should harness the potential of energy demand reduction and build a circular economy for critical raw materials. 

The concept of these critical raw materials

At the Big ideas on critical raw materials: how can the UK maintain supplies with minimal impact? talk organized by Green Alliance, Heather Plumpton, policy analyst at Green Alliance and one of the report’s authors, explains the concept of these raw materials. «Critical raw materials are things that are strategically important to the economy like cobalt, but they come with supply chain risks».

«We were interested in materials needed for net-zero, and that’s lithium and cobalt for electric vehicle batteries, silver for solar panels, and rare earth elements for wind turbines and motors. We wanted to look at how we could source these materials and support the transition to net-zero with the least environmental and social impacts. So we looked at demand for these materials under two future scenarios, one of which is the current trajectory of technology dominated transition to net-zero with very high energy demand. That means lots of electric vehicles and lots of power generation needed. The second scenario was a future where energy demand across the economy was reduced through measures like car sharing, more public transport, insulation and retrofitting of all buildings, healthier diets. These are measures that reduce energy demand across the whole economy».

«We found that under our high energy future, with lots of EVs and power generation needed, the UK could use up to five times its fair share of lithium by 2050, and four times its share of cobalt silver. This is important because the whole world needs to get to net-zero. If the UK uses more than its fair share of the materials that we need for those technologies and takes an approach where we hoard reserves, maybe it could hinder the global transition to net-zero».

«As well as potentially setting up risks to the long-term viability of the green industry we want to see in the UK, like wind turbine and battery manufacturing, as well as exporting pollution to other countries. The good news is that if we reduce energy use, we can also reduce the amount of critical raw materials we need, by up to fifty-five percent by 2030, for lithium, and similarly for cobalt. That would reduce immediate supply chain risks and impacts, as well as possibly making the transition to net-zero cheaper, as less new infrastructure will be needed to be built».

«But there is still some remaining demand for critical raw materials even in that scenario; we’re not going to get down to actual zero», explained Plumpton. «If we achieve ambitious recycling rates of seventy to ninety percent for these materials, by 2050, we could meet nearly all remaining demand for electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels from recycled content from those sectors, and that lower energy future scenario. So there’s a huge potential for a circular economy in these materials, where we reuse, remanufacture, reprocess and recycle these important materials, and we keep them in use at their highest value for longer circulation in the UK economy».

Green Alliance 

London-based independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership for the environment, active since 1979.

Roberta Fabbrocino

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.