Africa’s real strategic import for the green economy

Photo: REUTERS/Cooper Inveen

Among its efforts to address climate change, the Biden administration has laid out an ambitious agenda for a clean energy revolution that aspires to have the United States achieve a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and a zero-net economy by 2050. Getting anywhere close to these goals will require not only the “talent, grit, and innovation of American workers”—and businesses—but also significant quantities of raw materials. And here the African continent, especially the central region around the Great Lakes, has an important role to play, albeit in some ways often overlooked in discussions, but no less strategic.

Getting greener will require a lot more of everything from solar panels to wind turbines to electric vehicles to large-scale batteries to hand-held devices. This, in turn, will drive demand for various minerals and metals, both commonly well-known and not-so-familiar, on which the clean-energy technologies depend.

African countries are already a major source for some of these elements. For example, cobalt is a key component in rechargeable batteries. Roughly half of the 7.1 million metric tons of total global reserves of cobalt are found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) which, moreover, accounts for 70 percent of overall production of the metal, according to the most recent statistics.

In other cases, certain African countries are key to a secure supply chain. Take the case of neodymium, a silvery rare-earth metal that plays an outsized role in renewable energy since there is currently no ready substitute for it in the manufacture of so-called permanent magnets used in both generators (where they convert mechanical energy into electricity) and electric vehicles (where they do the reverse, converting electricity into mechanical energy)—and this is in addition to its longstanding uses in a host of applications ranging from credit cards to speakers to medical equipment.

Some 80 percent of the world’s neodymium is currently produced by China, a fact that suggests that the supply of this critical metal will come up in at least two of the reviews mandated by President Biden’s executive order on America’s supply chains, the study of high-capacity battery supplies led by the Secretary of Energy and the review of critical minerals led by the Secretary of Defense. Read more…

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