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 the Earth’s crust. Europe’s hunger for metals may confront it with three types of scarcity: economic, physical and geopolitical.
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 such as lithium, cobalt and rare earths.
The second type of scarcity is physical. Some metals are dug up at such a rate that the end of mining is on the horizon. Take copper, which is vital for many energy and digital applications. If copper mining continues to increase by three per cent every year, the extractable ores might be depleted within a century. (1) At the time of depletion, there will still be copper in the ground, but in very low concentrations, at great depth or in vulnerable spots. Extracting the remaining ores costs too much energy, water, materials and land, or it causes too much damage to nature and the environment, both on a local and a planetary scale. As geology and ecology together determine the boundaries of mining, we can speak of geo-ecological scarcity.