The war in Ukraine has damaged Europe’s supplies of oil, timber, cars and sunflower oil. The same could apply to the metals needed for the energy transition ? Gavin Harper, a researcher at the University of Birmingham, asks this question in an article published in The conversation. According to this specialist in critical and strategic materials, the conflict waged by Vladimir Putin’s regime could disrupt Europe’s supply of metals and “ paralyze » the use of electric vehicles, wind turbines and other low-carbon technologies.
Russia, he recalls, produces 37 % palladium and 12 % of world platinum. These metals are used in the production of catalytic converters (which make it possible to reduce the level of pollutants in the exhaust gases of vehicles, especially hybrid vehicles) and electrolysers (to produce hydrogen fuel). “ green »). Russia also represents 10 % of world production of nickel, one of the components of electric car batteries. Alone it fills 20 % of European needs in this area. “ It’s pretty important », notes Guillaume Pitron, a journalist and specialist in commodity geopolitics. A few days after the invasion of Ukraine, the nickel price on the London Metal Exchange quintupled due to the disruption of supply chains and reached an all-time high of 101,365 dollars (around 94,000 euros) per ton.
With 4 % of the market share, Russia is one of the main producers of cobalt (another component of electric car batteries). Moscow also uses copper and aluminum, which are greedy for photovoltaic panels and wind turbines. Aluminum prices also skyrocketed a few hours after the Russian President’s announcement “ military operations » in Ukraine. “ Market participants are clearly concerned that Russia’s aluminum supplies will be hit in the event of severe Western sanctions and – likely – Russian retaliation. »had said thatAFP Daniel Briesemann, analyst at the German banking group Commerzbank.
The Donbass region in Ukraine has gigantic lithium reserves, “ white gold » essential for electric car batteries. These deposits had caught the attention of an Australian company, European Lithium, who were planning to make them available to the European market. This project is now on hold. “ It’s a string down on the European supply bow »analyzes Guillaume Pitron.
“ Demand for these materials is growing at an extraordinary rate that supply cannot always keep up with. »
“ The difficulty is that, due to our society’s need for rapid decarbonization, the demand for these materials is increasing at an extraordinary pace that supply cannot always keep up with. »explains Gavin Harper, accompanied by reporter re. Bottleneck risks had already been identified before the war began. In his opinion, the latter could aggravate them.
A study by the Catholic University of Louvain published on April 25 expresses similar concerns. By 2050, the authors estimate that European lithium demand will increase by 3,535 % that of cobalt of 331 % that of nickel of 103 %, copper 35 %, and that of aluminum of 33 %. “ The large share of Russia in the European import market for aluminium, nickel and copper requires attentionnote the experts. After the invasion of Ukraine, Europe urgently needs to diversify its sources of supply. » If she fails to secure them, she believes the continent could face extinction “ vulnerability » around 2030.
- The smelting works SLNin Doniambo in Kanaky-New Caledonia, is one of the oldest nickel production sites in the world. Copyleft/Roman.b/Wikimedia Commons
The conflict in Ukraine is not solely to blame. Europe’s dependence on Russia is only “ The tip of the eisberg »says Bénédicte Cenki-Tok, lecturer in geosciences at the University of Montpellier. “ It needs to be placed in a larger context. » Europe is also dependent on China. Xi Jinping’s regime has developed a logic in recent years “ strangulation of his customers », according to Guillaume Pitron. The production of a large number of critical and strategic minerals is now in his hands. It also holds a virtual monopoly on certain finished products, such as B. Rare earth magnets. If it decides to turn off the export faucet, Europe could find itself in a situation “ very difficult ». The current developments on the geopolitical chessboard make the journalist think that we need this “ Get out of the merry post-globalization paradigm »after which everything is always available as long as you pay the price. “ We must be able to produce for ourselves without depending on our external environment. »
Recycling of metals, strategic partnerships with new countries, development of local mining projects… The recent study by the Catholic University of Louvain offers several ways to make Europe more resilient. But there are many obstacles ahead. Recycling, while promising, is “ very complex » and not always profitable, warns Guillaume Pitron. The path of mineral diplomacy is also riddled with pitfalls: “ The construction takes a long time. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but reactivating something that has been dormant for decades takes time. »
“ We want all the advantages of the energy transition without its disadvantages »
The restart of the mining sector in Europe also brings with it numerous social, health and environmental problems. Mining and refining metals is water and power intensive. Mining projects generate huge amounts of polluting waste that is likely to poison the environment. They often face strong local resistance, as in Brittany, where the government wants to exploit a lithium deposit, or in Serbia. “ The French and Europeans have not yet understood that you have to dig deep into your pocket to drive greenobserves Guillaume Pitron. We want all the advantages of the energy transition without its disadvantages. » Some mining companies are promising mines today “ clean » in the west, reports Bénédicte Cenki-Tok. But it’s too early to tell if it’s a real program or display effects.
These geopolitical and ecological boundaries should encourage us to question our understanding of the energy transition, according to the two experts. “ The best metal is the one we don’t exploitremembers Guillaume Pitron. The question of changes in consumer behavior is fundamental. » The author of The War of Rare Metals pings our current transition model, “ which consists in replacing our thermal cars with SUV Machines that consume six times more minerals. It’s an aberration. » The best way to be sovereign, he says, “ is to reduce our needs “.