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West confronts critical mineral challenge amidst China’s export restrictions

China’s announcement of export restrictions on gallium and germanium has thrust these chemicals into the spotlight, highlighting the urgent need for the West to secure critical metals and minerals essential for the green transition and emerging technologies.

As the demand for resources like lithium, copper, cobalt, and nickel is projected to double by 2030, investment in their development has risen significantly.

However, the West must confront three inconvenient truths to effectively address this challenge.

Firstly, China holds a staggering dominance over critical mineral extraction and refining. Its companies outpace Western mining groups in investment spending, and China controls about 60% of the world’s lithium processing.

With strategic deals across Africa and Latin America, China’s potential to weaponise resource control raises concerns in Western economies.

Secondly, the Western mining sector alone cannot solve critical mineral shortages.

Price volatility and limited public trading for some rare materials create risks. China’s first-mover advantage and state support allow it to remain competitive even during price slumps.

Governments can mitigate risks through initiatives such as price insurance and public-private partnerships, while diplomatic outreach and sweeteners like trade deals and infrastructure support are vital to build ties with resource-rich developing nations.

Lastly, coordinated efforts and partnerships among Western countries are essential. Joint financing can bring scale to projects, and untapped seabed exploration offers potential for new rare metal deposits, though environmental standards need agreement. Research partnerships, such as the discovery of sodium’s effectiveness in energy storage batteries, show promise.

Exploiting mineral deposits at home, including Canada’s and Australia’s abundance and Britain’s Cornish region with significant lithium reserves, requires overcoming slow permitting processes and opposition from “Nimbys” (Not In My Backyard).

The West’s awakening to the threat of climate change must be accompanied by a realisation of the need to secure the materials powering the green transition.

Coordinated action, diplomatic efforts, and innovation are crucial to ensure a sustainable supply of critical minerals and maintain momentum in the global pursuit of climate goals.