Visualizing China’s Dominance in Clean Energy Metals
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Renewables are expected to replace fossil fuels in the coming decades, and this large-scale transition will have a downstream effect on the demand for raw materials. More green energy means more wind turbines, solar panels and batteries needed, and more clean energy metals needed to build these technologies.
This visualization, based on data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), illustrates where the mining and processing of key metals for the Green Revolution is taking place.
It shows that despite being the world’s biggest carbon polluter, China is also the biggest producer of most of the world’s critical minerals for the green revolution.
Where clean energy metals are produced
China produces 60% of all rare earth elements used as components in high-tech devices, including smartphones and computers.
The country also holds 13% of the lithium production market, still dominated by Australia (52%) and Chile (22%). The highly reactive element is essential for the production of rechargeable batteries for cell phones, laptops and electric vehicles.
But even more than extraction, China is the dominant economy when it comes to processing operations. The country’s share in refining is around 35% for nickel, 58% for lithium, 65% for cobalt and 87% for rare earths.
Despite being the largest economy in the world, the United States is not among the largest producers of any of the listed metals. To narrow the gap, the Biden administration recently issued an executive order to review the US strategy for critical and strategic materials.
It’s also worth noting that Russia isn’t among the top producers of clean energy metals either, despite being one of the world’s top producers of minerals like copper, iron and palladium.
Weak regulation in the clean metal supply chain
While China leads all countries in terms of cobalt processing, the metal itself is mainly mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Yet Chinese interests own 15 of the 17 industrial cobalt operations in the DRC, according to an analysis of data by The New York Times and Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.
Unfortunately, the DRC’s cobalt production has been criticized due to reports of corruption and a lack of regulation.
Some Congolese cobalt comes from poorly regulated artisanal mines. From 255,000 Congolese artisanal miners, approx. 40,000 are children, some as young as six years old.
The Rise of Clean Energy Metals
The necessary shift from fossil fuels to renewables raises interesting questions about how geopolitics and these supply chains will be affected.
In the race to secure the raw materials needed for the Green Revolution, new global powers could emerge as demand for clean energy metals increases.
For now, China is in the lead.