In his book Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future, Saul Griffith, an American inventor, entrepreneur and engineer, sets out a plan for decarbonising the US: electrify everything. From now on, every time people replace a vehicle or renovate a building or buy an appliance, they should be buying electric. Every new roof must have solar panels, all new housing must be energy efficient and shouldn’t contain a gas cooker. All that’s required to make this happen is a collective national effort comparable to the mobilisation of the US economy for the second world war. And it could be financed with the kind of low-cost, long-term loans reminiscent of the government-backed mortgages that created the postwar American middle class. QED.
Reading Griffith’s engaging, optimistic book, a wicked thought keeps coming to mind: HL Mencken’s observation: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” But Griffith is too smart to be caught in that particular net. There is, though, one serious difficulty with his grand plan and it goes by the abbreviation CRM.
It stands for “critical raw materials”. It turns out that an all-electrical future won’t be possible without secure supplies of certain elements we extract from the Earth’s crust. And we’re discovering that there are rather a lot of these critical elements. A full roll call runs from antimony to strontium via cobalt, lithium, magnesium, platinum, tantalum – not to mention other stuff of which this columnist had until recently been blissfully unaware.
When people first began to think seriously about a comprehensively electrified future, only a limited number of these CRMs were regarded as “critical”. In 2011, the EU thought there might be 14 of them. By 2014, that number had gone up to 20. By 2017 it was 27. And since 2020 the number of CRMs stands at 30.
The EU has been fretting about this for at least a decade, but news of the problem seems to have taken its time to reach London. The government, after all, has other important things on what one might loosely describe as its mind. But an excited email from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) recently arrived, announcing that the report of an important inquiry into CRMs was to be published last Monday. And so it was, in the shape of a 76-page pdf, replete with tables and charts of all descriptions.
The report, entitled UK Criticality Assessment of Technology Critical Minerals and Metals, was commissioned from the British Geological Survey last November and is now available for public inspection. The aim of the inquiry was “to identify those minerals which might be at risk of supply disruption and to use that information to inform the development of mitigation strategies”.
The researchers identified “criticality” as having two dimensions: the likelihood of disruptions to supply (S); and the economic vulnerability of the UK and its consumers to such disruptions (V). Of the 26 CRMs evaluated, 18 exceeded the threshold for criticality on both axes. The ones with the highest supply ratings were the “rare earth elements” plus tellurium, gallium, germanium and antimony. China is the leading producer of 16 of the CRMs studied. The other leading producers were: South Africa for manganese, platinum and palladium; Chile for rhenium and lithium; Australia for lithium; Brazil for niobium; the US for beryllium; Russia for palladium; and the Democratic Republic of Congo for tantalum.
As far as the UK is concerned, 18 of the CRMs represent both supply risks and important vulnerabilities. Accordingly, the path to its carbon-free future looks as though it might be rocky.
The EU’s analysis of its CRM vulnerabilities has reached broadly similar conclusions and has led to a much-touted Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials, calling for open and global markets for raw materials. Given the importance of China in the CRM area, this sounds as fatuous as demanding an open market in Ukrainian wheat just now. And the eerie thing is that the EU’s own document lays out the strategic problem with exemplary clarity. “Excessive dependence on single supplier countries makes Europe vulnerable.” Check. “Clean and digital technologies are heavily dependent on critical raw materials.” Check. “The green and digital transitions will lead to a drastic increase in European demand for certain critical raw materials by 2050.” Check. So…
But there the document stops. It’s as if the logical conclusion is too painful to articulate. So let’s spell it out. As Europe and the US try to move to a carbon-free, CRM-rich future, they will find themselves in a position of strategic dependence analogous to Europe’s current dependence on Russian gas. Except that now it’ll be Xi Jinping calling the shots. And if the British Geological Survey’s report on CRMs has any useful lesson for whoever is currently running the country, it is that the UK is in the same boat.
What I’ve been reading
The Lost Art of Looking at Nature is a nice essay on David Attenborough by Rachel Riederer in Dissent magazine.
Jewellord Nem Singh’s Geographies in Transition on the Phenomenal World website examines why the technological is geopolitical and offers an interesting take on the implicit neocolonialism in the west’s search for a green future.
The Ryder Review is a fine investigation by the Ada Lovelace Institute in which Matthew Ryder QC asks the pertinent question: facial recognition technology is a toxic technology, so why isn’t it outlawed?