Critical minerals for the future

1 November 2023
Globally, countries are racing to secure the finite mineral supplies needed for the transition to low-carbon economies. The recent Critical Minerals Symposium considered how this rapid shift in resource competition will shape our world.

By Professor Susan Park, Discipline of Government and International Relations

The IPCC has recently pointed out we are in danger of not meeting our climate goals to keep within the 1.5 degrees of global warming above pre-industrial levels. States must be more ambitious in setting and meeting their nationally determined contributions. But the big success story is the rapid transition we are now seeing in energy and transport, with the dramatic uptake of renewable energy technology, with wind, solar PV, and lithium ion batteries driving the shift to electric vehicles.

However, this transition is more mineral intensive than our use of fossil fuels. This is leading to what some see as a race for critical minerals, and an intensifying of “resource nationalism” for states seeking to compete to access minerals vital for the transition. Ongoing geopolitical tensions over supply chains of critical minerals led Thea Riofrancos to coin the term, the sustainability-security nexus as the EU, US, China, Japan and others seek to find ways to re-shore or friend-shore global supply chains for critical minerals. Yet the boom and bust cycle of critical minerals can enable huge sums of money to be made before the spade has hit the soil to begin mining. Fears of running out of critical minerals drive further exploration and expansion while we need to consider how to make better use of what we mine, refine, discard, let alone reduce, reuse, and recycle.

In September the Sydney Environment Institute hosted a Critical Minerals Symposium to gather together scholars working on critical minerals mining for the transition to renewable energy from Australia and overseas. At the Symposium we wanted to better understand the impacts of a more mineral intensive future, looking at places where critical minerals are being extracted, and how this fit within state’s visions for the future, what they hoped to achieve, and how they wanted to get there. Over two days we had the opportunity to think through how states like Australia designate minerals as critical, not only in terms of their contributions to states economic, security, and climate needs, but also in terms of the methods they use to assess them. Different mineral imaginaries became apparent, including Chile’s lithium future, and Brazil’s intention to transition using critical minerals and biofuels. Bolivia’s direction is very different in how it has nationalised its mining companies to better serve the needs of its people. Whereas Canada, the closest comparator to Australia, continues to face opposition from local communities over its mining of lithium, even in stalwart mining communities given the impacts on drinking water.

Indeed, the impacts of mining for critical minerals cannot be overstated. They not only are often located on Indigenous Peoples' land, raising questions of Free, Prior and Informed Consent, they also have significant environmental and social impacts...

Indeed, the impacts of mining for critical minerals cannot be overstated. They not only are often located on Indigenous Peoples' land, raising questions of Free, Prior and Informed Consent, they also have significant environmental and social impacts, ranging from water and soil toxicity to resultant impacts on people exposed to it. Some question whether the urgency around the shift to renewables should be undertaken at any cost, or whether there should be “no-go zones” that we agree should not be mined. Recent debates over mining in space and the deep seabed highlight the potential for ongoing destruction and devastation in ways that we have not perhaps even thought through.

And while we are rapidly transitioning to renewables, we continue to consume energy at an ever increasing rate. We need not only be more energy efficient, that old low hanging fruit, but we need to rethink how we use that energy. Current efforts by the European Union, and the US formerly with its Dodd Frank Act legislation sought ways to put protections on the mining of minerals while locally, Australia seeks to advance itself as a leader on environmental, social and governance issues. These efforts will rapidly need to scale up given the impacts already apparent. Civil society around the world in various mine sites continue to seek to find ways to hold mining companies to account and we continue to examine how our future and those of future generations are shaping up.

Susan Park is Professor of Global Governance in International Relations at the University of Sydney and lead of the Sydney Environment Institute's Transitioning Systems theme. She focuses on how international organisations and global governance can become greener and more accountable, particularly in the transition to renewable energy. She has been a visiting scholar at the London School of Economics, Oxford University, the Technical University of Munich, American University, and the Centennial Centre in Washington DC. Her work has been funded by the Australian, Canadian, British and German governments.

Header image: cobalt at the Andover mine in Western Australia by Paul-Alain Hunt via Unsplash.

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