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Scarcity of Minerals

1 January 2010

What do we know about the quantity and availability of minerals that are used in industrial production and that are essential for economic growth, now and in the future? China is securing its supply of not only oil and gas, but also of minerals. In addition, China has recently announced a renewed tightening of export restriction on so-called ‘rare earth elements’; naturally occurring materials that are vital for the production of green technology, smartphones, and precision weapons.

This report looks at whether minerals may be scarce in the near future and the geopolitical and security implications this may have. Our research indicates that mineral scarcity is not a matter of simply asking ‘how much is still left?’ or ‘when will this or that mineral run out?’ The bulk of available mineral deposits is not (yet) exploited, due to technological or economic limitations, or because it would require too much energy to do so. In fact, the global reserves of minerals that can be exploited fluctuate but have remained fairly constant over time. The question is whether, given the growing demand,this trend will continue.

Scarcity of minerals is not about depleting existing stocks but about the amount of extraction that becomes profitable under existing market conditions. The basic fallacy of the scarcity debate is the assumption that mineral reserves are static. Whether or not scarcity will occur does not only depend on the known quantity of mineral reserves but also on a number of interrelated factors, including mining technology, demand and production, supply, the price of energy and the price of minerals.

The control of the supply of scarce minerals is in the hands of a few countries and companies. Faced with the prospect of increasing demand and tightening supply of minerals used in critical applications, access to scarce minerals and stockpiles are increasingly framed as issues of vital interest or national security. Mineral scarcity is no longer a trade-issue but an issue of strategic interest. Scarcity of minerals is an issue that needs urgent attention of policy-makers. Rather than short-term action based on fears of depleting known mineral reserves, prudent, long-term approaches are needed to mitigate mineral scarcity and prevent its most harmful effects. For the key findings, please see the (executive summary of) the report.

Experts on this report

Deputy Director, Market and Operations

Michel Rademaker

Michel Rademaker is a senior policy analyst and deputy director of HCSS. He has a degree in Transport and Logistics, obtained at the University of Tilburg.

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Strategic Analyst

Tim Sweijs

Tim Sweijs is a Senior Strategist. He is the initiator, creator and author of numerous studies, methodologies, and tools for research projects in horizon scanning, conflict analysis, international and national security risk assessment, and capability development.

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