The United States has recently renewed its goals to reduce carbon emissions and move towards reliance on renewable energy sources such as solar plants, electric vehicles, and wind farms. This transition from the traditional use of fossil-fuels to renewables for energy production requires an extraordinary amount of mineral extraction. The location of such minerals is condensed in few areas throughout the globe, such as China, Australia, Chile, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The extraction and refining processes of such minerals is currently dominated by China and Chinese firms. Sourcing of minerals in volatile regions also threatens the reliability of access to those necessary for energy production, whether it be due to civil unrest or climate risks. Relying on Chinese mineral production limits the bargaining power of the United States as it becomes increasingly reliant on these energy sources.
Renewable energy sources of wind, solar, and electric vehicles rely heavily on minerals such as copper, lithium, zinc, nickel, cobalt, silicon, and others. According to the IEA (International Energy Agency) the world is currently on track to double its mineral requirements for clean energy by 2040. A concerted effort to achieve the goals set forth in the Paris Climate Accords would mean a quadrupling of mineral requirements.
In 2019, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and China were responsible for 70% of global cobalt production and 60% production of rare earth minerals. In addition, China was responsible for 35% of refining of Nickel, 50-70% for Cobalt and Lithium, and nearly 90% for other rare-earth minerals. Each of these minerals are essential to produce renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar, and lithium batteries.
Limited sourcing of many of these minerals renders their supply chain vulnerable to destabilizing events such as civil unrest, climate events and limitations, and humanitarian concerns. Many of the largest deposits of essential minerals are in countries that have faced instability due to climate limitations, and political strife. The DRC is one of the world’s largest exporters of cobalt and rare earth minerals and has faced challenges of war and underdevelopment. The production of Cobalt in the DRC has been tied to child labor, corruption, and violent clashes between miners and security forces. Reports suggest that up to 45% of the world’s supply of polysilicon, an essential component of solar panels, is being produced through forced labor in the Xinxiang province of China.
Other countries such as Chile and Australia face environmental roadblocks to the production of minerals. Due to Chile’s largely arid climate, the production of Lithium poses serious threats to water access. Australia’s hot and largely arid climate also poses threats to mineral extraction dependent on water access.
Relying on the Chinese for the extraction and refinement processes of these resources makes the United States dependent on China’s willingness and ability to produce and export them. The availability of energy resources may be impacted if the Chinese invade Taiwan, increase aggression in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia, or any other actions that the US feels they must oppose, such as the Uighur genocide in the Xinxiang Province of East China. It also lessens the bargaining power the United States has with China. Reliance on China for energy production will affect the diplomatic and soft power tools the US has in the protection of its interests domestically and abroad.
Further stress on the supply of energy products will come in the event of civil unrest or war in critical regions such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Not only will the production and exportation of critical minerals be harmed in this event, but the countries reliant on these minerals may be faced with funding wars that perpetuate human rights abuses, and the empowerment of extreme groups.
The US faces security dilemmas in its pursuit to reduce carbon emissions. Shifts towards renewable energy sources require the extraction and refinement of minerals that are currently produced in a market dominated by the Chinese and sourced from vulnerable regions of the world. Ensuring the sustainability and reliability of the energy grid is paramount to national security and the well-being of the citizenry. Reliance on China and vulnerable regions for its energy threatens US autonomy domestically and internationally.