Minerals Security Partnership
In June this year, United States led the formation of a new partnership called ‘Minerals Security Partnership’ (MSP) that intends to reduce the dependence of the member nations on China for supplies of cobalt, nickel, lithium and the 17 rare earth minerals. The alliance, which now includes Canada, Australia, Finland, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, the UK and the European Commission, has been established with an aim to secure the supply of these critical minerals which are essential for clean energy and other technologies, as global demand for them rises and is projected to expand significantly in the coming decades. Massive amounts of these minerals, which are key inputs in batteries, electric vehicles, wind turbines, and solar panels, are also used in products ranging from computers to household appliances.
The MSP will aim to help “catalyze investment from governments and the private sector for strategic opportunities … that adhere to the highest environmental, social and governance standards,” the US State Department said in a statement.
The goal of the MSP is to ensure that critical minerals are produced, processed and recycled in a manner that supports the ability of countries to realize the full economic development benefit of their geological endowments. Demand for critical minerals, which are essential for clean energy and other technologies, is projected to expand significantly in the coming decades. The MSP will help catalyze investment from governments and the private sector for strategic opportunities — across the full value chain — that adhere to the highest environmental, social and governance standards.
Critical minerals are mineral resources that are essential to the economy, and whose supply may be disrupted, and the ‘criticality’ of which changes with time as supply and society’s needs change.
Critical minerals such as copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt and rare earth minerals are essential components in the rapidly growing clean energy technologies such as wind turbines and electric vehicles. As clean energy transitions gather pace, the demand for these minerals will grow quickly, according to the International Energy Agency.
A critical mineral is a metallic or non-metallic element that is essential for the functioning of modern technologies, economics or national security, has a supply chain at risk of disruption, and is used to manufacture advanced technologies, according to Geoscience Australia, an agency of the Australian government carrying out geoscientific research.
The advanced technologies which can be manufactured using critical minerals include mobile phones, computers, tablets, semiconductors, fibre-optic cables, and defence, aerospace and medical applications.
Critical minerals are also used in low-emission technologies such as electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels and rechargeable batteries, and could be used for common products such as stainless steel and electronics.
Many critical minerals, including rare earth minerals and metals such as lithium, gallium, tellurium, and indium are central to high-tech sectors, according to the American Geosciences Institute.
Based on the relative importance of particular minerals to the industrial needs of a country, and the strategic assessment of supply risks, individual countries develop their own lists of critical minerals.
The 11-member MSP group will aim to bolster the supply chains of critical minerals such as cobalt, lithium, nickel, gallium, and 17 rare earth minerals.
China is responsible for around half of the worldwide production of rare earth minerals.
According to the US Geological Survey, 38 percent of world production of rare earth minerals in 1993 was in China, 33 percent in the US, 12 percent in Australia, and five percent each in Malaysia and India.
However, China accounted for more than 90 percent of the world production of rare earth minerals in 2008. By 2011, China accounted for 97 percent of world production.
Since 1990, supplies of rare earth minerals became an issue because the Chinese government began to change the amount of rare earth minerals it allows to be produced and exported, and also started limiting the number of Chinese and Sino-foreign joint venture companies that could export rare earth minerals from China.
The MSP is aimed at reducing dependency on China for rare earth minerals, according to media reports.
In 2019, the Democratic Republic of China (DRC) and the People’s Republic of China were responsible for about 70 percent and 60 percent of global production of cobalt and rare earth minerals, respectively.
China’s share of refining is 50 to 70 percent of lithium and cobalt, around 35 percent for nickel, and nearly 90 per cent for rare earth minerals.
Chinese companies have made investments in overseas assets in Chile, Indonesia and Australia. According to the International Energy Agency, complex supply chains could increase the risks that might arise from trade restrictions or other developments in major producing countries.
China is one of the major producing regions subject to extreme heat or flooding. This poses greater challenges in ensuring reliable and sustainable supplies.
Both the MSP and the Australia-India Critical Minerals Investment Partnership are aimed at unlocking the benefits of the critical minerals sector.
How other countries fare
China doesn’t just dominate supplies, it also has a head start of close to 25 years over other countries in developing the skills required for exploring and processing critical minerals.
In recent times, Europe has realized to the need to train mining engineering talent and taken steps to address skill gaps. In February, the Budapest-headquartered European Institute of Innovation and Technology launched a Battery Alliance Academy that will train 800,000 workers by 2025 for the EU’s battery industry. Japanese corporations have made some headway in developing processing technologies. Policymakers in other countries have begun conversations to address the needs of the new knowledge economy.
The writer is a Quetta-based educator.