These days in Washington, it's competition with and hostility to China all the way to the bank. The political class in Congress and the Biden White House, as well as the punditariat that goes with them, seem increasingly swept up in a new-cold-war mentality. It doesn't matter whether we're talking about the latest bipartisan Senate bill to support technological development in this country that, by the way, House conservatives are already critiquing as not faintly anti-Chinese enough or the CEO of Lockheed Martin fanning the anti-China flames in order to acquire rocket-engine maker Aerojet Rocketdyne without running into antitrust problems.
If you want something in Washington, whatever it might be, the most obvious way to frame getting it is as a response to the dangers of, or the need to compete better with, China. And the Pentagon has certainly taken note. Despite its ongoing wars elsewhere, it seems to have its "near-peer" competitor in its sights 24/7. And yet, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author of All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change and founder of the Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy, makes clear today, such a new-cold-war framework is likely, among other things, to significantly undermine the path to Joe Biden's renewable energy future.
If the two greatest greenhouse-gas emitters on this planet can't work together, we're all going to be living in a more or less literal hell (as the E.P.A. suggested just the other day in reference to this already overheating country of ours). If we can't cooperate, whatever our differences, it will be a disaster for China and for the U.S. In that context, consider the ways in which Biden's focus on a green future will, in the most literal sense imaginable, need the support of that country, a reality Klare illuminates in a way I've not seen before. Tom
Lithium, Cobalt, and Rare Earths
The Post-Petroleum Resource Race and What to Make of It
Thanks to its very name renewable energy we can picture a time in the not-too-distant future when our need for non-renewable fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal will vanish. Indeed, the Biden administration has announced a breakthrough target of 2035 for fully eliminating U.S. reliance on those non-renewable fuels for the generation of electricity. That would be accomplished by "deploying carbon-pollution-free electricity-generating resources," primarily the everlasting power of the wind and sun.
With other nations moving in a similar direction, it's tempting to conclude that the days when competition over finite supplies of energy was a recurring source of conflict will soon draw to a close. Unfortunately, think again: while the sun and wind are indeed infinitely renewable, the materials needed to convert those resources into electricity minerals like cobalt, copper, lithium, nickel, and the rare-earth elements, or REEs are anything but. Some of them, in fact, are far scarcer than petroleum, suggesting that global strife over vital resources may not, in fact, disappear in the Age of Renewables.
To appreciate this unexpected paradox, it's necessary to explore how wind and solar power are converted into usable forms of electricity and propulsion. Solar power is largely collected by photovoltaic cells, often deployed in vast arrays, while the wind is harvested by giant turbines, typically deployed in extensive wind farms. To use electricity in transportation, cars and trucks must be equipped with advanced batteries capable of holding a charge over long distances. Each one of these devices uses substantial amounts of copper for electrical transmission, as well as a variety of other non-renewable minerals. Those wind turbines, for instance, require manganese, molybdenum, nickel, zinc, and rare-earth elements for their electrical generators, while electric vehicles (EVs) need cobalt, graphite, lithium, manganese, and rare earths for their engines and batteries.
At present, with wind and solar power accounting for only about 7% of global electricity generation and electric vehicles making up less than 1% of the cars on the road, the production of those minerals is roughly adequate to meet global demand. If, however, the U.S. and other countries really do move toward a green-energy future of the kind envisioned by President Biden, the demand for them will skyrocket and global output will fall far short of anticipated needs.
According to a recent study by the International Energy Agency (IEA), "The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions," the demand for lithium in 2040 could be 50 times greater than today and for cobalt and graphite 30 times greater if the world moves swiftly to replace oil-driven vehicles with EVs. Such rising demand will, of course, incentivize industry to develop new supplies of such minerals, but potential sources of them are limited and the process of bringing them online will be costly and complicated. In other words, the world could face significant shortages of critical materials. ("As clean energy transitions accelerate globally," the IEA report noted ominously, "and solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars are deployed on a growing scale, these rapidly growing markets for key minerals could be subject to price volatility, geopolitical influence, and even disruptions to supply.")
And here's a further complication: for a number of the most critical materials, including lithium, cobalt, and those rare-earth elements, production is highly concentrated in just a few countries, a reality that could lead to the sort of geopolitical struggles that accompanied the world's dependence on a few major sources of oil. According to the IEA, just one country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), currently supplies more than 80% of the world's cobalt, and another China 70% of its rare-earth elements. Similarly, lithium production is largely in two countries, Argentina and Chile, which jointly account for nearly 80% of world supply, while four countries Argentina, Chile, the DRC, and Peru provide most of our copper. In other words, such future supplies are far more concentrated in far fewer lands than petroleum and natural gas, leading IEA analysts to worry about future struggles over the world's access to them.
From Oil to Lithium: the Geopolitical Implications of the Electric-Car Revolution
The role of petroleum in shaping global geopolitics is well understood. Ever since oil became essential to world transportation and so to the effective functioning of the world's economy it has been viewed for obvious reasons as a "strategic" resource. Because the largest concentrations of petroleum were located in the Middle East, an area historically far removed from the principal centers of industrial activity in Europe and North America and regularly subject to political convulsions, the major importing nations long sought to exercise some control over that region's oil production and export. This, of course, led to resource imperialism of a high order, beginning after World War I when Britain and the other European powers contended for colonial control of the oil-producing parts of the Persian Gulf region. It continued after World War II, when the United States entered that competition in a big way.
For the United States, ensuring access to Middle Eastern oil became a strategic priority after the "oil shocks" of 1973 and 1979 the first caused by an Arab oil embargo that was a reprisal for Washington's support of Israel in that year's October War; the second by a disruption of supplies caused by the Islamic Revolution in Iran. In response to endless lines at American gas stations and the subsequent recessions, successive presidents pledged to protect oil imports by "any means necessary," including the use of armed force. And that very stance led President George H.W. Bush to wage the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1991 and his son to invade that same country in 2003.
In 2021, the United States is no longer as dependent on Middle Eastern oil, given how extensively domestic deposits of petroleum-laden shale and other sedimentary rocks are being exploited by fracking technology. Still, the connection between oil use and geopolitical conflict has hardly disappeared. Most analysts believe that petroleum will continue to supply a major share of global energy for decades to come, and that's certain to generate political and military struggles over the remaining supplies. Already, for instance, conflict has broken out over disputed offshore supplies in the South and East China Seas, and some analysts predict a struggle for the control of untapped oil and mineral deposits in the Arctic region as well.
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