Friday, May 21, 2021

Resource Wars for the Green New Deal

 Solar, wind and tidal power are renewable but what is needed to convert those resources into electricity — minerals like cobalt, copper, lithium, nickel, and the rare-earth elements (REEs)  are not. Some are far scarcer than oil, and capitalist competition and conflicts over control of those vital resources may well persist.

Electric vehicles uses substantial amounts of copper, and require cobalt, graphite, lithium, manganese, and rare earths for their engines and batteries.  According to the IEA, a typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional oil-powered vehicle. These include the copper for electrical wiring plus the cobalt, graphite, lithium, and nickel needed to ensure battery performance, longevity, and energy density (the energy output per unit of weight). In addition, rare-earth elements will be essential for the permanent magnets installed in EV motors.

 Wind turbines need manganese, molybdenum, nickel, zinc, and rare-earth elements for their electrical generators.

For the time being with wind and solar power accounting for only about 7% of global electricity generation and electric vehicles making up less than 1% of the cars on the road, demand is being met by supply. However, the International Energy Agency (IEA), in its report, “The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions,” predicts the demand for lithium in 2040 could be 50 times greater than today and for cobalt and graphite 30 times greater if the world moves swiftly to replace oil-driven vehicles with EVs. Potential sources of them are limited.  In other words, the world could face significant shortages of  vital raw materials materials. 

“As clean energy transitions accelerate globally,” the IEA report noted ominously, “and solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars are deployed on a growing scale, these rapidly growing markets for key minerals could be subject to price volatility, geopolitical influence, and even disruptions to supply.”

“Today’s supply and investment plans for many critical minerals fall well short of what is needed to support an accelerated deployment of solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency. 

The most critical minerals, lithium, cobalt, and those rare-earth elements, production is highly concentrated in just a few countries, a reality that could lead to the sort of geopolitical struggles that accompanied the world’s dependence on a few major sources of oil.  Just one country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), currently supplies more than 80% of the world’s cobalt, and another — China — 70% of its rare-earth elements.  At present, approximately 58% of the world’s lithium comes from Australia, another 20% from Chile, 11% from China, 6% from Argentina, and smaller percentages from elsewhere. A U.S. firm, Lithium Americas, is about to undertake the extraction of significant amounts of lithium from a clay deposit in northern Nevada.  Four countries — Argentina, Chile, the DRC, and Peru — provide most of the copper. In other words, such future supplies are far more concentrated in far fewer lands and hands than oil and gas. Already the Socialist Standard has drawn attention to the focus on Greenland for its resources.

Many promising ore sources lie in countries like the DRC, Myanmar, Peru, and Russia where such conditions hardly apply. For example, the current turmoil in Myanmar, a major producer of certain rare-earth elements, has already led to worries about their future availability and sparked a rise in prices.

China may not produce significant amounts of cobalt or nickel, but it does account for approximately 65% of the world’s processed cobalt and 35% of its processed nickel. And while China produces 11% of the world’s lithium, it’s responsible for nearly 60% of processed lithium. When it comes to rare-earth elements, however, China is dominant. Not only does it provide 60% of the world’s raw materials, but nearly 90% of processed REEs.

there is no way the United States and other countries can undertake a massive transition from fossil fuels to a renewables-based economy without engaging economically with China.  Efforts will be made to reduce the degree of that reliance, but there’s no realistic prospect of eliminating dependence on China for rare earths, lithium, and other key materials in the foreseeable future. If Cold-War-like stance toward Beijing arose or if the USA were to try to “decouple” its economy from that of the China, as advocated by many “China hawks” in Congress, the United States would have to abandon its plans for a green-energy future.

Either a future in which capitalists begin fighting over the world’s supplies of important minerals or simply abandoned their plans for a Green New Deal and let the planet burn.

Adapted from here

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