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.

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 such as lithium, cobalt and rare earths.

Physical scarcity

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.

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, the Salvadoran
parliament imposed a
ban on the extraction
of metal ores, because
the pollution from
mining posed a severe
threat to vital fresh
water resources (2)

The depletion of metal ores brings both intra- and intergenerational justice into question. For people in the poorest countries, it will become even harder 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 – are denied to them.

Justice within and between generations requires, at the very least, 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 landfills. Also, it matters what we use metals for. If our unborn offspring could ask us what we 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'. (3)

Geopolitical scarcity

The third type of scarcity is linked to geopolitics. Europe’s dependence on imported metals puts security of supply at risk. Some metal ores are available or exploited 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. With every update, the list gets longer. Currently, it contains 30 ‘critical raw materials’. Most of them are metals. (4)

Cobalt, for example, is classified as critical because most of it is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). That is a country with many conflicts, corruption and serious 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 already restricted the export of rare earths in the past as a means to exert pressure on foreign governments and companies.

China supplies Europe with many other critical metals as well as with appliances, such as solar panels, batteries, magnets and smartphones, in which these metals are incorporated. With the energy transition and digitalisation, are we exchanging one unwanted dependency – that of Moscow for natural gas – for another – that of Beijing for metals? Will this not damage the EU’s freedom to steer its own course on the world stage? If only to prevent China from gaining too much power over us, we had better look for ways to curb our demand and diversify our supply.

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), 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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