Copper to transport electricity from wind turbines, lithium, cobalt and nickel for automobile batteries: the transition to clean energy is hungry for metals. With China largely dominating refining and supply, the rest of the world is starting to organize itself so as not to be (too) dependent.
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Thursday in Paris, representatives of 47 consumer and producer countries gathered under the aegis of the International Energy Agency (IEA) for the first world summit devoted to “critical metals”, the new black gold, in the aim of tracing the contours of a “metal diplomacy”.
Three main challenges must be met, indicated the Director General of the IEA Fatih Birol at the opening: How to “accelerate the diversification” of supply? How to “organize metal recycling” on an industrial and planetary scale? How can we make mining and refining “sustainable,” both environmentally and socially?
During a recent interview with AFP, he was more precise: “metal refining is very concentrated in China,” he said.
No more than Russia, also a major producer of metals and minerals, China is represented at the summit.
However, China alone provides “nearly 70% of the production of rare earths”, according to Emmanuel Hache, researcher specializing in raw materials, and Benjamin Louvet, asset manager, authors of the recent book “Metaux, the new gold black”.
On the refining side, “in the battery segment alone, China refines around 67% of cobalt, 62% of lithium, 60% of manganese, and 32% of nickel” in the world, they point out.
For cobalt, it produces around 1% of the ore, but it participates in more than two thirds of global refining. The same goes for copper, of which it produces 8% of the world’s ore, but refines 41%.
Faced with this hegemony and with the memory of the breakdown of global supply chains during the Covid crisis, the participants began initial discussions to reorganize the system.
US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm called for “international cooperation” and “creativity” to tackle “complex” challenges. We must “work to “align national conventions and regulations”, and improve “market transparency”, in order to “have new tools” when and if supply disruptions arise, she said. said.
Arifin Tasrif, Indonesian Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources, a country which bases its development on the exploitation and refining of nickel in particular, also placed emphasis on “new cooperation” for the organization of recycling. metals for example.
“In the European Union, we cannot replace dependence on fossil fuels with dependence on raw materials,” noted European Commissioner for Industry Thierry Breton. Recalling the “Critical raw material act” presented by Brussels, Mr. Breton called for more cooperation in order to “inflate mining and refining capacities”.
On the industrial side, Australian mining giant BHP called on countries to adopt “stable tax frameworks, streamlined research and authorization processes and harmonized standards”. Otherwise, it could drive away capital and “make the energy transition more difficult and more expensive,” warned its CEO Mike Henry.
Other mining groups like Rio Tinto or the Chilean Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile, as well as giants of the raw materials trade like Glencore and Trafigura, participated in the discussions, as did the boss of the London Metal Exchange (LME) Matthew Chamberlain .
The increase in mining projects or metal recycling can help limit global warming “below 1.5°C” compared to the pre-industrial era, according to the IEA.
What Africa sees as an opportunity, “since 50 to 70% of metal resources are found in Africa” noted the commissioner of the African Union (55 countries) for Energy Amani Abou-Zeid, during an interview with AFP.
The electrification of transport alone by 2040 will generate a multiplication of the demand for lithium by more than 40 at the global level, by around 20 for that of cobalt and nickel and more than 3 for copper in compatible decarbonization scenarios with the Paris climate agreement, according to the IEA.