La Croix L’Hebdo:What developments have you observed in the geopolitics of metals during the five years between your two works?
Guillaume Pitron : It is undeniable that Western awareness of the accumulated delay in this key sector of energy and digital transitions is at work. The United States, the European Union, Japan, all these powers display a desire to diversify their sources of supply and gain sovereignty. This translates into investments and strategic partnerships in all industrial segments: extraction, refining and recycling.
At the same time, the demands of producing countries are increasing, particularly in mineral-rich countries of the South such as Bolivia, Chile, Zimbabwe, Ghana and Indonesia. The archipelago’s decision to no longer sell raw nickel, to refine it on its soil, extract more added value from it and create local jobs, perfectly illustrates this new mining nationalism.
How can we explain Chinese omnipresence in this market?
G. P. : China understood very quickly that metals were going to be strategic in the digital and energy transition, that it possessed them in abundance and that Western countries refused to assume the environmental and social cost of their extraction. It then invested in a neglected sector where the United States, like Europe, had given up. Its industrial policy has taken the West against its way of thinking by being guided not by a capitalist vision and a search for short-term profits, but by a monopolistic ambition.
And now what is his strategy?
G. P. : Its leaders consider the strategic value of metals to be greater than their economic value. With rare earths, they are ready to lose money by lowering prices while continuing to subsidize the sector in order to make it impossible for competitors to emerge. These metals are used both as an instrument of diplomatic negotiations and geopolitical pressure.
By being patient, by absorbing the economic, environmental and social costs of the mine, at the end of the chain, China multiplies its stake each time it transforms the metal to the next state. The purpose of this long-term policy, enabled by the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime, is as follows: Beijing produces 77% of the world’s electric batteries (compared to 14% for the EU and 6% for the United States, Editor’s note ).
In your opinion, is our society still heading towards “a greener world dependent on dirty metals”, as you wrote in 2018?
G. P. : That’s a very good question. In the reports on the future consumption of mineral resources, the orders of magnitude are staggering and such prospects are right to worry us. They lead us to realize that emitting less CO2 requires digging ever deeper. In fact, for this transition to be sustainable, recycling and reuse must increase in our economies. A “low carbon” world is inseparable from a “low materials” world, which is why the transition we are beginning must be twofold: energetic and circular.
How can the EU catch up?
G. P. : A mine will never be clean, but it can become more responsible in the way it manages before and after extraction. Today, the reputational pressure on this industry is such that I think it will gradually improve its ecological impact, and the regulation on batteries, adopted in July 2023, bears witness to this.
In this context, Europe has a card to play with lithium and the deposits discovered in France, Germany and Portugal. If it gives itself the means, it can, in the medium term, be sovereign and exporter of battery quality lithium, respectful of demanding environmental standards.