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Green Energy is Still a Dream

23.02.2023
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According to J. Peter Pham

Climate activists and other carbon reduction advocates sometimes argue that the only obstacle between humanity and a bright green future is a lack of political will.

Alas, it is not a lack of political imagination that is holding back these green dreams, but a material shortage of critical minerals, without which the transition to clean energy systems is impossible.

First, most political—not to mention politicized—discussions about the energy transition overlook the material needs of renewable energy systems compared to their fossil fuel predecessors. For example, an electric car like the Tesla Model Y, which became the best-selling car in that category in America last year according to the Kelley Blue Book, requires six times more minerals than a conventional car. Its wiring alone requires about 130 pounds of copper—about three times as much as a gasoline-powered car. Copper is also needed to power the transition to solar and wind power for homes and businesses, which will require extensive rewiring. If, as expected, demand doubles to around 50 million metric tons per year by 2035, then the most optimistic scenario would see an annual shortfall of nearly 10 million metric tons. And that’s just copper: According to the International Energy Agency, meeting the mid-century zero-emissions goal set out in the EU Climate Act, as well as President Biden’s Decree of December 2021, will result in aggregate demand for the most common minerals used in electric vehicles and batteries—lithium, graphite, cobalt, and nickel—will grow thirtyfold over the next two decades.

Secondly, the lack of material resources is exacerbated by the logistics of obtaining minerals. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) accounts for about 70 percent of the world's cobalt production. What's more, almost all of the metal is then exported to China, which recycles about 90 percent of the world's supply of rare earth elements (REE), two-thirds of lithium and cobalt, and nearly 40 percent of nickel. As Biden's special presidential coordinator for global infrastructure and energy security, Amos Hochstein, recently acknowledged at the African Mining Indaba conference in Cape Town, South Africa: “This is a major problem for the US and, I think, for the rest of the world. As we move towards a cleaner, greener and completely new energy system, we need to make sure we have a diversified supply chain. … We cannot have a supply chain centered in any country, no matter what country it is.” For example, threats uncovered by the Biden administration in lithium-ion battery supply chains show that China produces 79 percent of all batteries in the world, and only one Chinese firm (CATL) alone controls 30 percent of the global electric vehicle battery market. To this end, supply diversification is a top priority and a key to risk reduction, even if it may sometimes involve doing business with countries or firms that would not otherwise be considered relevant.


It is the problems of production and logistics that can explain the diplomatic activity of developed countries, deployed in recent years. These include the Memorandum of Understanding signed at the U.S.-Africa Leaders' Summit in December, the Mineral Security Partnership, which includes Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Commission, and etc.

The dream of a greener economy based on low-carbon or even carbon-neutral energy systems may not be as far-fetched as previously thought, but its achievement will depend on ensuring access and a stable (and plentiful) supply of essential strategic materials.

 

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