Critical minerals & the transition roundtable 1: outcomes

On 28 March, the Mining 2030 Investor Agenda – an investor coalition focused on engagement with the global mining sector and led by the Church of England Pensions Board – hosted its first roundtable to explore the role of mining for the low-carbon transition.

Representatives of prominent asset owners and fund managers as well as the banking and insurance sector heard from experts at the World Bank, the IEA, and Benchmark Mineral Intelligence in a knowledge building session exploring whether critical mineral supply can meet the demands of the low-carbon transition and the global development agenda.

Key takeaways from the first roundtable include:

The clean energy transition and global development imperative will be mineral-intensive, with the World Bank estimating that demand for key critical minerals could skyrocket by nearly 500% by 2050 under a 2 degree scenario.

Source: The World Bank Group

However, the IEA and Benchmark Mineral Intelligence warned of a looming mismatch between mineral supply and climate ambition, with current Investment plans “geared to a world of gradual change”, according to IEA Energy Analyst Tae-Yoon Kim.

Source: The International Energy Agency

With mines taking a minimum of seven years to come online, a lack of investment now will translate to shortages in production down the line, yet upstream investment hasn’t matched commitments to battery and EV production, according to Benchmark Minerals’ Chief Data Officer Caspar Rawles. Rawles said the lithium market is already in deficit, with cobalt shortages predicted by 2024.

However, it is difficult to forecast future mineral demand pathways with any certainty, according to World Bank mining expert Sven Renner. The World Bank’s 500% demand growth projections are underpinned by a 2 degree scenario with a baked-in assumption that the low carbon technology mix remains unchanged over the next 30 years, for example.

Each metal has its own supply and demand growth characteristics. While demand for major metals is growing continuously, technology developments could mean minor metals used in only specific applications see demand upended. Metals produced mainly as byproducts (shown in red below) – which include critical minerals cobalt and neodymium – have a natural ceiling associated, which could lead to bottlenecks in production.

Source: The World Bank Group

Renner from the World Bank was bullish about the ability of technology and the market to adapt to mineral shortages, explaining that substitution, efficiency gains and technology changes have meant there have been very few physical shortages of metals in the last decades. However, batteries use mainly minor metals like lithium, cobalt and graphite, which could make them vulnerable to pinchpoints.

With global transition plans hinged on global capacity to scale up low-carbon infrastructure, and with many resource-rich nations hoping their mineral resources will be a lever for development and enabling a just transition, Mining 2030 remains concerned that mineral availability and company and government transition plans are not linking up strategically.

The speakers indicated that geographical limitations of mineral refining capacity could give rise to inefficiencies, carbon intensity and possibly production bottlenecks. China dominates globally in raw material processing, which can have environmental implications. For example, spodumene mined in Australia, which provides over half of current lithium supply, is typically refined in China using coal-fired power, giving it a huge emissions footprint. The lithium in an average EV will also have travelled 50,000km before the car even hits the roads.

Source: The International Energy Agency

Mining 2030 will continue to explore this topic through further roundtables hearing from industry and investors. Areas identified for further discussion include:

  1. Which low carbon technologies and minerals are strategically most important for the transition? 
  2. Where are these minerals located? Where do mines need to be built and expanded? What issues could delay expansion? And what could the environmental, social and developmental ramifications of increased production mean, particularly on the issue of mine waste (tailings)?
  3. Are automakers, EV battery manufacturers and other downstream users of critical mineral-dependent products a) assessing their critical mineral dependencies b) engaging with miners and refiners and other upstream players to ensure critical mineral supply?
  4. Can investors in automakers, EV battery manufacturers and other users of critical minerals have certainty that corporate commitments on climate change can feasibly be delivered? Have companies made disclosures showing the minerals needed in batteries can be sourced in time to meet planned EV roll out? Is there a strategic dialogue taking place between mining companies and downstream mineral users regarding what is needed over the next 3, 5, 10 or 15 years and whether it is deliverable?
  5. What steps are there to diversify processing capacity and are there geographical concentration risks?

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