Scarcity of Minerals

January 1st 2010 - 12:00
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.

Michel Rademaker is the deputy Director of HCSS. He has fifteen years of hands-on experience as an officer in The Royal Netherlands Army, where he held various military operational and staff posts and also served a term in former Yugoslavia. He has a masters degree obtained at the University of Tilburg. After leaving the armed forces, Mr. Rademaker went on to work at the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) as a project and program manager and senior policy advisor on security topics for ten years. Eg. as NATO RTO project leader, he and his team developed serious gaming assessment methods and conducted several assessments of security technologies, and worked on numerous strategic security topics.
Dr. Tim Sweijs is the Director of Research at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies. He is the initiator, creator and author of numerous studies, methodologies, and tools for horizon scanning, early warning, conflict analysis, national security risk assessment, and strategy and capability development. Tim has lectured at universities and military academies around the world. His main research interest concerns the changing character of contemporary conflict. Tim is a Senior Research Fellow at the Netherlands Defence Academy and an Affiliate at the Center for International Strategy, Technology and Policy in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology.