Disrupted supply of critical minerals could affect speed of energy transition, Irena says

Global capabilities for mining and refining minerals are limited

Lithium Zimbabwe's processing plant in Goromonzi. AP
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The supply of critical minerals used in electric vehicles and renewable energy projects is vulnerable to a range of geopolitical risks, and disruptions could affect the speed of the energy transition in the “short to medium term”, the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) has said.

While there is no scarcity of reserves for energy transition minerals, global capabilities for mining and refining them are limited, the Abu Dhabi-based agency said in a report on Wednesday.

“The risk of supply chain disruptions is less about energy security and more about the potential slowdown of the transition, which must be avoided,” said Francesco La Camera, Irena’s director general.

“My message is to urgently strengthen collaboration on critical materials to minimise the geopolitical risks of concentrated supply chains and accelerate the deployment of renewables to limit rising temperatures to 1.5°C,” he said.

The supply of critical materials is concentrated in a few countries, which increases the risk of supply shortages due to external shocks, resource nationalism, export restrictions, mineral cartels, instability, and market manipulation, Irena said.

For instance, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was responsible for about 70 per cent of global production of cobalt in 2019.

China, the world’s manufacturing centre, accounts for more than 50 per cent of the globe’s refined supply of graphite, dysprosium, cobalt, lithium, and manganese, the agency said.

Meanwhile, the five largest mining companies control 61 per cent of the lithium output and 56 per cent of cobalt production.

“No single country can alone fulfil its demand for materials, so collaborative strategies that benefit all involved need to be developed and implemented,” Mr La Camera said.

“Particularly mineral-rich developing countries gain if they can capture a greater share of the critical material value chain,” he said.

“By redefining the narrative of extraction, we can promote a more responsible approach to the benefit of people and communities in pursuit of inclusive and resilient economies.”

The market for critical minerals more than doubled in size over the past five years, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in a report this week.

From 2017 to 2022, the energy sector drove a threefold increase in lithium demand, a 70 per cent surge in cobalt demand and a 40 per cent increase the demand for nickel, the Paris-based agency said in its Critical Minerals Market Review on Tuesday.

The energy transition minerals market reached $320 billion in 2022, moving it ever closer to centre stage for the global mining industry, the IEA said.

“Developing countries currently account for most of the global production needed for energy transitions, but their share in reserves is even greater,” Irena said.

Bolivia has 21 million tonnes of lithium reserves, but produced less than 1 per cent of the world’s supply.

An estimated 54 per cent of minerals are located on or near indigenous peoples’ land, underscoring the need for community engagement, the agency added.

It urged industry stakeholders to “rewrite the script” for extractive commodities while creating momentum for more inclusive and sustainable value chains.

Supporting policies can help developing countries realise new business opportunities, improve resilience and keep the global decarbonisation agenda on track, Irena said.

Updated: July 12, 2023, 10:52 AM