I read Jit’s recent article, On the Materials Intensity of Wind Power shortly before learning about yet another WEET conference, to take place on 8th June 2023, with the title “Next steps for critical minerals in the UK”. From this I learned (and I suppose we should be relieved to learn it, given the whole net zero agenda) that there is a Policy Lead, Critical Minerals, at BEIS; there is a UK Critical Minerals Association; and a UK Critical Minerals Strategy. I am less reassured by the fact that net zero and opposition to fossil fuels continue, and the government continues to push much that is counter-factual:
A new cohort of critical minerals are becoming even more important as we seek to bolster our energy security and domestic industrial resilience – in light of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine – and as we move away from volatile, expensive fossil fuels.
Running through this we find the same hubris that leads so many people in the UK to demand that “we” (the UK) “tackle” climate change (as if we could). It appears that the UK is going to “tackle” international critical minerals markets:
Through this strategy, the UK will:
accelerate growth of the UK’s domestic capabilities
collaborate with international partners
enhance international markets to make them more responsive, transparent and responsible
It must be a pretty amazing strategy if we in the UK can achieve that third point on our own, but then again, we apparently think we can unilaterally tackle “the climate crisis”.
Dependence on China
There is more detail of the strategy in a pdf document, which runs to 48 pages, including glossy end-pieces, index, etc. This does recognise some awkward truths:
The world in 2040 is expected to need four times as many critical minerals for clean energy technologies as it does today.
However, critical mineral supply chains are complex and opaque, the market is volatile and distorted, and China is the dominant player. This creates a situation where UK jobs and industries rely on minerals vulnerable to market shocks, geopolitical events and logistical disruptions, at a time when global demand for these minerals is rising faster than ever.
It is vital that we make our supply chains more resilient and more diverse to support British industries of the future, deliver on our energy transition and protect our national security.
It is rather depressing to see that although there is a recognition that China is the dominant player in this crucial area, there is no recognition that the transition to renewable energy, and the obsession with net zero, therefore causes us problems. Although we need critical minerals for lots of other things, it really isn’t very clever to make us more dependent on them than necessary, especially in the light of China’s dominance in this area.
And that, it seems, is the plan:
Countries’ climate change ambitions are changing the way we produce, distribute and store energy. Clean energy technologies – such as electric cars, wind turbines, photovoltaics, hydrogen production and nuclear reactors – will need to be deployed quickly. The UK currently relies on complex and delicate global supply chains for its rapidly growing demand for critical minerals to fuel its net zero future . Seven of the government’s Ten Point Plan targets for a green industrial revolution assume a stable supply of critical minerals. Global demand for electric vehicle battery minerals (lithium, graphite, cobalt, nickel) is projected to increase by between 6 and 13 times by 2040 under stated policies, which exceeds the rate at which new primary and secondary sources are currently being developed. The UK’s automotive and electric vehicle battery ecosystem, as an example, could grow by 100,000 jobs by 2040 but depends on the development of a UK battery manufacturing capability. Our intention to build a new generation of gigafactories will only happen in the UK if there is a resilient supply of battery minerals.
Despite this, the document is clearly written, and there is a plan, including the creation of “an enabling environment for companies to develop critical mineral capabilities in UK, including exploration, extraction, refining, materials manufacturing, recovery and recycling”. It is worth a read.
There is a Critical Minerals Expert Committee, which first met on 2nd December 2021, and which has at least twenty external members, with some pretty impressive-looking expertise. In addition, there is a UK Critical Minerals Intelligence Centre, launched in July 2022 and run by the British Geological Survey, with support (presumably financial) from the BEIS.
At least Paul Lusty, the Intelligence Centre’s Director, recognises the problem:
The UK has announced world-leading targets to decarbonise the economy, which include plans to build an electric vehicle supply chain and transform the energy system using offshore wind and clean hydrogen. Building these technologies and the associated infrastructure will require substantial quantities of critical minerals. The UK’s current critical mineral needs are met almost entirely from overseas, through complex and dynamic international supply chains that often have poor end-to-end visibility. The Centre will help the Government and industry understand future UK critical minerals demand, and potential chain supply vulnerabilities.
The notes with the email relating to the WEET conference on critical minerals make a rather oblique reference to the Indonesia-UK memorandum of understanding, which was signed in October 2022, and (so the notes tell me) was “intended to boost investment in sectors the UK excels in, including through access to critical minerals”.
This is intriguing, since the memorandum includes not a single reference to critical minerals. The recitals to the agreement are borderline hilarious, since they purport to acknowledge “Indonesia’s climate leadership…as set out in Indonesia’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC).” The last time I looked at Indonesia’s NDC, I noted this:
Their INDC is surprisingly light on detail, for a country with approximately 260 million inhabitants (the 4th most populous country on the planet) and with rather large problems from burning forests (ironically much of which is to clear land for biofuels growth)…
…Their INDC even admits that “Most emissions (63%) are the result of land use change and peat and forest fires, with combustion of forest fuels contributing approximately 19% of total emissions.”
All of which makes the virtuous noises in Indonesia’s INDC a little hard to stomach. They offer an unconditional 29% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030, and up to 41% with international support, but this is against a Business as Usual scenario. The problem with this is the rate at which their GHG emissions are increasing. They tell us that GHG emissions were 1,400 MtCO2eq in 2000, had risen to 1,800 in 2005, and the BaU scenario will see them double by 2030 from their 2000 figure, to 2,800. So even the conditional offer would only take them back to 2005 levels, and the unconditional offer would see their emissions rise.
Their INDC runs to only 8 pages plus a 3 page annex. It is extremely light on hard information. They would like international financial assistance, but they don’t say how much. They devote one small paragraph to steps to clamp down on land use change, despite the hugely significant importance of this topic in the context of their GHG emissions.
To say I’m unimpressed would be an understatement.
In the relatively short time since I wrote that, Indonesia’s population is thought to have increased to 276.3 million people, which offers up an indication of the scale of the problem.
The Memorandum of Understanding appears to be based around the idea that the UK will help Indonesia with the creation and maintenance of forestry and other land use (FOLU) CO2 “sinks”. In return (presumably, as it has been left unwritten) is the hope that Indonesia will supply the UK with critical minerals. It seems to be well placed to supply many of them. It’s more than a little ironic that the UK’s net zero plans seem to be dependent, at least in part, on a country with the tenth highest annual CO2 emissions currently and few meaningful plans to reduce them.
It appears that green lithium is a thing. Teesside is to be the site of “the UK’s first large-scale merchant lithium refinery, providing battery grade materials for use in the electric vehicle, renewable energy and consumer technology supply chains”. This stuff always costs the taxpayer, but in the context of net zero expenditure, this is small change:
The UK Government has backed Green Lithium with a grant of over £600,000 through the Automotive Transformation Fund.
The plan is to reduce the CO2 emissions associated with processing lithium. The idea that this is “green” might be a little optimistic, according to Green Car Congress in October 2020:
With demand for lithium set to increase over the next decade… CO2 emissions from lithium production are set to triple by 2025 versus current levels and to grow by a factor of six by 2030, with the vast majority of this coming from mineral concentrate production, shipping and refining.
Reducing emissions associated with refining lithium is all well and good, but there are still mining and transport to consider. And as the Guardian headline from June 2021 reminds us “The rush to ‘go electric’ comes with a hidden cost: destructive lithium mining”.
Odds and ends
As seems to be the case with all WEET conferences discussing Net zero issues, there is a section about support for industry (which I assume can be translated as meaning more taxpayer support) and “tackling barriers”. Despite the constant cost to the taxpayer and the barriers to be tackled, the net zero juggernaut rolls on and on relentlessly.
It’s difficult to know what to make of all this. Many people are worried about the potentially environmentally destructive aspects of mining critical minerals, whether there are even enough of them to satisfy the international “green” agenda, and the emissions associated with extracting, transporting and refining them. The Chinese dominance of this area is a matter for concern, with real worries about supply chains. After all, if we in the UK cannot access sufficient minerals to satisfy net zero plans, then net zero plans (and jobs) must be in jeopardy. On the plus side, the government does seem to have woken up to some of these problems, but apparently not enough to wonder whether these issues cast any doubt on the net zero agenda.