September 26, 2023 | Metals & Minerals
The global mineral supply chain is concentrated in a few regions, with China dominating as the key supplier over the last three decades. In fact, China accounts for 85-90% of global rare earth element mine-to-metal refining, most of which are vital for clean energy transition.
China’s dominance in the rare earth element production can be attributed to operational cost competitiveness and introduction of policies that have had significant impact on the global rare earth supply chain as well as prices.
Demand for these minerals is expected to rise significantly.
According to an International Energy Agency (IEA) estimate, the amount of critical minerals required in 2040 to achieve the net-zero goals globally by 2050 is six times what is available today.
Copper, lithium, cobalt, manganese and nickel are crucial to building clean, low-carbon technologies and transitioning to green energy. Along with rare earths, they are extensively used in wind turbines, solar panels, mobile phones, defense systems and electric vehicle batteries.
Like rare earth elements, the supply chain of lithium, cobalt and nickel is also geographically concentrated. While Australia accounts for about 50% of global lithium mining, the Democratic Republic of Congo contributes nearly 70% of cobalt supply.
Indonesia, which is one of the largest producers of nickel, banned exports in 2020, forcing foreign buyers to invest in the country’s smelters to process materials locally.
Geographic concentration and export restrictions create uncertainty for mining and processing companies and increase costs for end-users. The threat of what is being called ‘resource nationalism’ further increases the risk of supply shortages.
The U.S. relies heavily on China for the import of 26 of the 50 minerals classified as critical by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Ongoing tensions between these two countries leave the concentrated mineral supply chain vulnerable to political, economic and physical disruption. Taking advantage of its dominance, China has often imposed restrictions on exports of select critical minerals to several countries including the U.S. and Japan.
The minerals that are vital for energy needs and also at most risk to supply shocks include lithium, nickel, cobalt, dysprosium, iridium, neodymium, praseodymium and terbium, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Concentration is not merely limited to mineral supply, it can also be seen in the investment landscape. Chinese companies dominate financial backing for many operations in developing countries. For example, Chinese entities, which enjoy backing from the Chinese government, owned 15 of the 19 large cobalt operations in Congo in 2020. China has also invested heavily in two Indonesian islands that have the largest nickel reserves in the world.
Growing ESG concerns have also hampered new supply by pushing back mining and processing projects. An estimate by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) suggests that nearly half of the global copper and lithium production is concentrated in high water-stress areas.
There is little doubt that many countries have consistently made efforts to create a robust mineral supply chain. Some are working together through institutions such as the OECD and the World Bank to support sustainable mining and supply chain practices.
The U.S. government has created spending programs and subsidies to invest in domestic resources and established international partnerships and bilateral trade agreements with its strategic allies.
In June 2022, the U.S. convened a new Minerals Security Partnership (MSP) with key allies to strengthen security of mineral supply through information sharing, greater investment and development of recycling technologies.
However, given the complexity of the global mineral supply chain, a lot still needs to be done to mitigate risks of supply disruption and build a larger and resilient supply chain for minerals.
Recognizing the threats of supply disruptions and price volatility, many countries have stepped up efforts to diversify the supply chain for critical minerals in recent years. But there has been limited success in their endeavors, that too at the mining stage of production.
There hasn’t been a significant improvement in the processing stage, which remains largely concentrated. There is an increasing need to diversify the midstream supply chain. Investing in processing plants and facilities can be one of the ways to do this. New processing facilities that are located closer to extraction sites can also offer advantages of nearshoring.
Building a resilient mineral supply chain also calls for new partnerships and increased collaboration between different countries.
In June 2022, the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment was launched at the G7 summit in Germany. This partnership aims to mobilize $600 billion in loans and grants from member countries to projects in developing countries.
The declaration at the recently held G20 summit in New Delhi reiterated the need to support reliable, diversified, sustainable and responsible supply chains for energy transitions, including for critical minerals and materials beneficiated at source. Members recognized the need to diversify the supply chain to ease access to critical minerals.
In addition to greater collaboration, there is also a need to update regulatory policies to streamline project development and reduce the time and costs needed to develop new mines and processing facilities. The U.S., Canada and the European Union are making strong efforts in this direction to update their regulatory framework to accelerate permitting of projects.
Direct response mechanisms such as stockpiling systems can also help countries work together to prevent and respond to supply disruptions.
Building a resilient mineral supply chain also requires the adoption of advanced technological solutions. Enterprises must be able to identify supply chain risks and have clearly defined strategies in place to mitigate their impact. They should leverage predictive capabilities of advanced AI technology to forecast demand and conduct risk analysis on different suppliers in the supply chain.
For example, shortages of critical minerals can impact the production of electric motors and batteries. To effectively counter their impact, enterprises must be able to “see” these shortages before they can occur and hamper production. When they can see and anticipate potential disruptions, they can be in a better position to respond quickly and implement risk management strategies.