How to avoid a green-metals crunch (The Economist – September 11, 2023)

With ingenuity, a 6.5bn-tonne problem may be dodged

Everyone wants more metals. In recent months Britain has inked a deal with Zambia, Japan has sealed one with Namibia and the EU has shaken hands with Chile. The bloc’s negotiators also started talks with the Democratic Republic of Congo; America’s, meanwhile, visited Mongolia. This scattershot campaign, which is also targeting the Philippines and Saudi Arabia, has a single aim: obtaining the minerals required for rapid decarbonisation.

Seventy-two countries, accounting for four-fifths of global emissions, have committed themselves to net-zero targets. According to the Energy Transitions Commission (etc), a think-tank, hitting them by 2050 will require 15 times today’s wind-power capacity, 25 times more solar, a tripling of the grid’s size and a 60-fold increase in the fleet of electric vehicles (EVs).

By 2030 copper and nickel demand could rise by 50-70%, cobalt and neodymium by 150%, and graphite and lithium six- to seven-fold. All told, a carbon-neutral world in 2050 will require 35m tonnes of green metals a year, predicts the International Energy Agency, an official forecaster. Adding aluminium and steel to the mix, the ETC forecasts that demand between now and then will hit 6.5bn tonnes.

Hence why analysts and policymakers worry about an almighty supply crunch towards the end of the decade. The ETC expects shortages of market-breaking magnitudes by 2030: some 10-15% for copper and nickel, and 30-45% for other battery metals.

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