1. Three types of scarcity

Our planet is finite and so are the mineral resources we can extract from it. Also, minerals are unevenly distributed over Earth’s crust. Europe’s hunger for metals may therefore cause it to be confronted with three types of scarcity.

Economic scarcity

The first type is economic. It takes between 5 and 20 years to build a new mine. Some metals, such as cobalt and indium, are mined primarily as a by-product of other metals, which complicates the business case for scaling up extraction. When supply does not keep up with demand, price hikes and shortages will occur. In view of the exponential growth of renewables and data, there is a genuine risk that the energy and digital transitions will be hampered by economic scarcity of metals  not only of well-known energy metals such as lithium, cobalt, and rare earths, but also of lesser-known metals such as iridium. (1) This platinum-like element is vital for the production of hydrogen from renewable electricity.

Physical scarcity

The second type of scarcity is physical. Some metals are being extracted at such a rate that the end of mining may well be on the horizon for them. Take copper, which is vital for many energy and digital applications. If copper mining continues to increase at the current rate of three per cent per year, extractable ores could well be depleted within a century. (2) Once depletion is reached, there will still be copper in the ground, but in very low concentrations, at great depth, or in vulnerable locations. Extracting the remaining ores would require too much energy, water, materials, or land, or it would cause unacceptable damage to nature and the environment, both at a local and a planetary scale. Since both geology and ecology determine the boundaries of mining, we can speak of geo-ecological scarcity.

GEF_MetalsGreenDigital_icons9a mining ban transparant

Mining ban

In Latin America, the
country of El Salvador

has already hit the
boundaries of mining.
In 2017, as a result of
the threat posed by
mining-related pollution
to vital freshwater
resources, the
Salvadoran parliament
imposed a ban on the
extraction of metal
ores. (3)

The depletion of metal ores brings both intra- and intergenerational justice into the spotlight. It will become even more difficult for people in the poorest countries to catch up with their contemporaries in the developed world if some of the metals they need for infrastructure, energy, and digitalisation are no longer available. For future generations, a lack of metals means that certain options for survival and well-being – some of them as yet unknown – will be denied to them.

At the very least, justice within and between generations requires that we make frugal use of metals and that we do our utmost to keep them in a closed loop, instead of sending them to landfill. It also matters what we use metals for. If future generations could ask us what we plan to bequeath to them, 'a clean energy supply and a liveable climate' would surely be a more satisfying answer than 'lifelike online video games and personalised advertisements'. (4)

Geopolitical scarcity

The third type of scarcity is linked to geopolitics. Europe’s dependence on imported metals puts security of supply at risk. Certain metal ores are only present or mined in a limited number of countries. If those countries are badly governed or apply trade restrictions, the incoming flow of metals may be interrupted. The European Commission has a list of raw materials that are vital for European industry, but whose supply may be jeopardised. The list gets longer with every update. Currently, it features 30 ‘critical raw materials’, most of which are metals. (5)

Cobalt, for example, is classified as critical because most of it is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC is highly prone to conflict, corruption, and abuses in the mining sector, including child labour. Rare earths such as neodymium and dysprosium are also considered critical because the EU sources 98 per cent of them from China, an authoritarian state that has restricted the export of rare earths in the past in order to exert pressure on foreign governments and companies.

China also supplies Europe with many other critical metals as well as with appliances such as solar panels, batteries, magnets, and smartphones which contain them. With the energy transition and digitalisation, are we exchanging one unwanted dependency – on Moscow for natural gas – for another – on Beijing for metals? Will this not damage the EU’s freedom to steer its own course on the world stage? It is therefore crucial that we find ways to curb our demand and diversify our supply, if only to prevent China from gaining too much influence over Europe.

OVERVIEW

Footnotes

Further viewing

Guillaume Pitron, author of 'The Rare Metals War', on the geopolitics of metals Afspelen op YouTube

Further reading

No planet B - Green European Journal

Liesbeth Beneder & Richard Wouters, There is no planet B, on geo-ecological scarcity and justice within and between generations

Guillaume Pitron - Green European Journal
Guillaume Pitron - Green European Journal
Logo Green European Foundation

Green European Foundation (GEF)

This project is organised by the Green European Foundation with the support of Wetenschappelijk Bureau GroenLinks (NL), Fundacja Strefa Zieleni (PL), Transición Verde (ES), Etopia (BE), Institut Aktivního Občanství (CZ), the Green Economics Institute (UK), and Visio (FI), and with the financial support of the European Parliament to the Green European Foundation.

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