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UK Renewables: Critical Minerals

Volume 691: debated on Monday 15 March 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for critical minerals, I am delighted to have secured this debate on the use of critical minerals in the UK’s renewables future. As was the case with my two hydrogen Adjournment debates, I am pleased to announce that this is the first debate in the UK Parliament dedicated to critical minerals.

Critical minerals have long been overlooked by successive Governments and by this House—the mantra of “out of sight, out of mind” is apt. Awareness of where our critical minerals come from and what they are used for is low, however. The Government are waking up to the fact that the race for critical minerals security is the new great game. Urgent action must be taken now to safeguard the future prosperity of the United Kingdom and the west in the spheres of the economy, defence and energy. With the upcoming COP26 in Glasgow and the G7 summit in Cornwall, there could not be a better time to do so.

It is vital that this House is made aware of the significant threat to our economy and our post-covid and post-Brexit recovery if we run out of the critical minerals needed to supply our low-carbon industries of the future. The UK’s 10-point economic plan makes an assumption that the international supply of these minerals is sufficient to service every country’s needs in our global race to avoid climate change. I would like to inform the House that that is clearly not the case.

What are critical minerals and what are they used for? In simple terms, these are the minerals that are vital for low-carbon industrial capabilities, but which face supply chain vulnerability. The Critical Minerals Association has split the definition of critical minerals into three subsections: critical minerals, which are important for industrial strategy and consist of minerals such as lithium, cobalt and rare earths; technology metals, which are bulk metals such as copper that are not susceptible to supply chain vulnerability, but are important nevertheless for the UK’s industrial objectives; and strategic minerals, which have potential defence importance. Those three groups of critical minerals are ubiquitous in their use, and that is part of the problem.

In fact, critical minerals are becoming more and more important by the day. Our renewables and telecommunications technology of the future requires an ever-increasing amount of critical minerals. Without them, our society just cannot function. With global demand at this scale, shortages present a real threat to our economy and to our society. In the past five years, we have seen the mass commercialisation of satellite and drone technology, led by British companies such as Blue Bear Systems, all of which rely on critical minerals. Likewise, advanced robotics for British manufacturing, which is crucial to my seat of Rother Valley in South Yorkshire and places across our country, require more than 40 different critical minerals.

It is incredibly important that British industry thrives in the post-Brexit and post-covid era. For that to happen, factories and plants in the Rother Valley region must stay at the cutting edge of their sector, with the best equipment and secure, efficient supply chains, thus staying competitive and retaining their reputation for the highest-quality products.

The most visible everyday examples of the importance of critical minerals are mobile phones and electric cars. Our ultra-modern smartphones, boasting touchscreens, cameras and 5G, use a huge number of critical minerals, including potassium, tin, copper, tungsten and advanced aluminium. Electric vehicles are often hailed as the future of renewable transport, but they are key users of critical minerals. Each car on average uses 100 kg of copper, rare earth for the magnets and lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite for the batteries. Many people are surprised to learn that a solar panel relies on 16 different minerals and metals.

An equally important part of the UK’s renewables future is the wind turbine, with the Prime Minister boldly envisioning that we shall become the

“Saudi Arabia of wind power”.

I share his enthusiasm for the role that wind can play in powering the UK and in reducing our carbon emissions, but to meet the Prime Minister’s objective of having every home in the UK powered by wind turbines by 2030, experts indicate that we will need to increase our output of energy from 10 GW to 40 GW by 2030. That will require building a new wind turbine every single day until 2030. To achieve that, we need more than 26,000 tonnes of rare earths and more than 4 tonnes of copper. The UK Government must acknowledge that the construction of renewable energy technology is inextricably linked to the supply of critical minerals. We must take action accordingly to protect our energy sector and the generation of power.

Importantly, seven points in the Government’s 10-point plan for the green recovery are dependent on a secure green supply of critical minerals. Herein lies the challenge for the United Kingdom. We are facing a two-pronged threat. The first threat is that as demand rockets for the use of critical minerals in the technology of the future, there is a global shortage, which would affect our economy and livelihoods, our energy supply, our environmental agenda, our security and defence, and basically the way we live our lives.

The second threat is that our current suppliers of critical minerals are not dependable or sustainable. I shall name two countries in our critical minerals supply chain in order to demonstrate that fact. The first is involved in the mining of critical minerals, and the second in the midstream processing. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is not a dependable source of minerals for the UK to rely on. It is politically unstable, and Chinese influence is concerningly strong in mining areas. It is not a sustainable source of minerals either, with the DRC home to low environmental standards and frequent human rights violations against local people and children. In fact, there is currently a class action lawsuit against the big technology companies, including Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla, which stand accused of operating supply chains that use cobalt mined by children.

The second country in our critical minerals supply chain is the People’s Republic of China, and it is in the midstream, where the communist PRC dominates, that we face our greatest threat. Clearly, we are totally dependent on China’s good will, from processing and refining to beneficiation. For instance, China mines only 1% of the world’s cobalt, but refines 65% of it. It mines 12% of the world’s manganese but refines 97% of it, as well 89% of the world’s graphite. China’s absolute control of the critical mineral midstream is so strong that graphite from the UK is sent to China for beneficiation, and then bought back from China at the component section of the supply chain. That is absurd. Of the 172 gigafactories being built in the world at this moment, 130 are in China.

It is estimated that by 2030 the world’s demand for lithium will mean that global production is 1.4 million tonnes a year in deficit. Graphite will be 8 million tonnes in deficit, cobalt 800,000 tonnes in deficit, and nickel 400,000 tonnes in deficit. If China controls the midstream of those minerals, and is building over three times more gigafactories than the rest of the world put together, it is only logical that China will serve its industrial requirements before the rest of the world, and before the United Kingdom.

We talk about industrial strategy, but would my hon. Friend enlighten the House about his views on whether this is also a national security threat?

I thank my hon. Friend for that point, and of course it is a national security issue. This is one of the biggest national security issues facing us over the next 10 years or so, and we need to have control of it.

Let me give more examples of why this is such an important matter. More than 75% of the world’s lithium-ion component manufacturers are located in China, resulting in more than 72% of lithium-ion batteries, and 45% of all global electric vehicles, already being produced in China. In December 2020—only a few months ago—the Chinese legislature passed a law on export control, allowing the Government to ban exports of strategic materials and advanced technology to specific foreign companies. A Chinese Government spokesman said:

“China may take countermeasures against any country or region that abuses export-control measures and poses a threat to China’s national security and interests”.

This year alone, China has openly discussed the potential of cutting off the supply of rare earths or rare-earth components to the United States. Those are necessary for the US defence sector and, to put that into context, more than 400 kg of rare earths are needed for a single F-35 fighter.

Let me return to the example I often cite, which is the coronavirus pandemic. Last year, the UK imported most of its personal protective equipment from China, with only 1% of it made in the UK. When we needed it most, however, at the height of the pandemic, China decided to not fulfil its obligations, by sending us defective PPE, or by not even sending it to us at all. We now manufacture 70% of PPE domestically. It is a similar situation with critical minerals. When we take that together with China’s actions over Hong Kong, Taiwan, and its treatment of the Uyghurs, it is clear that we cannot, and should not, depend on the PRC for the future of our economy, energy, and defence sectors.

For the economy, the consequences of such supply chain instability for the United Kingdom are stark. Let me take the automotive sector as an example of the consequences. Some 70% of the value of an electric car is realised in its battery and motor. If those components cannot be manufactured in the UK because we do not have the minerals coming into the country, the consequences for the automotive sector alone are bleak: it could cost up to 500,000 jobs by 2030. There is no doubt in my mind that the Government must take immediate and assertive action to avert this potential disaster, which may strike just as we set out our post-covid-19 recovery.

The Government must adopt a two-fold approach, the first arm of which is to focus on relocating as much of the critical minerals supply chain as we can to the UK, thereby boosting the UK economy and creating jobs and opportunities. The second arm is to take a leading role in creating a Five Eyes critical minerals alliance to co-ordinate an overarching strategy to secure a stable network of interdependence.

On building a critical minerals industry in the UK, we already have some world-leading companies and research institutions in the sector, doing vital work. Of course, Britain has long been a pioneer in industrial innovation. If we look through history, we see that we have been at the forefront of industrial revolutions and part of revolutions in power supply, from early agrarian methods to steam to oil. What differentiates today’s power revolution is that we are not only looking for more powerful or cheaper sources of energy but developing renewable energy sources that meet our social objective of being less damaging to the environment. It is inescapable that critical minerals are the building blocks of this new economy, and the renewable energy sector will need them. The reality is that our future economy and green energy desires rely on a steady, secure and vertically integrated supply of critical minerals for the UK.

The UK has a particularly long history of mining stretching over 2,000 years and more. Everyone in Britain is only too aware of the legend that Jesus himself visited our green and pleasant land more than two millennia ago precisely because of our mining heritage—his relative Joseph of Arimathea was a tin trader—as memorialised in the song “Jerusalem”. Our bulk mining capacity has been depleted because of decreased ore grades, but we are now seeing a growth in domestic critical mineral potential. Although this will never meet our entire critical mineral needs, the shortening of supply chains and production of feedstock domestically is the first step towards reducing vulnerability and tapping into the £7 billion-per-year industry.

We know of UK critical minerals deposits in the south-west of England, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Cornish lithium is key to UK critical mineral potential, securing battery-grade lithium from geothermal brine. Elsewhere in the region, Tungsten West is reopening a globally significant tungsten deposit in Devon and Cornwall, and Cornish Metals has the potential to supply industrial levels of tin for the British economy. Not only are such projects significant to our industrial objectives, but they provide an alternative year-round economy to Cornwall and the south-west, where the community has rich mining heritage. In Northern Ireland, Dalradian Gold has the potential to deliver significant copper for the UK economy. Such companies require support to unlock the potential in our regions and secure critical minerals sourced from home.

Domestic mining is just one small part of the greater picture. It is important to note that no one expects us to repatriate all upstream mining to Britain—quite simply, we do not have the geology to support that. It is key that we relocate to the UK other steps in the supply chain, particularly in the midstream. Crucially, by shortening our supply chain we can reduce our embedded carbon footprint, which is vital to the delivery of our green economy and to meeting our net zero target. The domestication of the critical mineral stream and investment in the circular economy is crucial. We are lucky to have in the sector leading British companies such as the Materials Processing Institute, Less Common Metals, TechMet and Technical Critical Minerals.

Let me turn to the second arm of the two-fold approach that I urge the Government to adopt. It is evident that the act of mining is determined by the geology in a nation. If we are to meet the UK’s industrial needs, we will need to secure sufficient critical minerals from other countries. It so happens that our Five Eyes partners are blessed with critical minerals in abundance, as are our Commonwealth friends.

I am a firm believer that the UK is a force of good in the world. In stable partner nations such as Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia the multiplier effect of a responsibly-run mine is somewhere between 10 and 25. In respect of Five Eyes, collaboration is vital for the mutual benefit of us all. We largely share the same economic and security objectives and we face the same global threats. Closer collaboration with our partner nations, especially Australia and Canada, will be vital to our upstream overseas critical mineral supply chain. As vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for critical minerals, it was an honour to host the Australian high commissioner this morning to hear about Australia’s recently launched critical mineral strategy and how Australia seeks greater co-operation with the UK in this vital sector.

The high commissioner reiterated that neither country will get to net zero by 2050 through the development and deployment of low-emission technologies without a secure supply chain of critical minerals. His Excellency confirmed that the UK is at the front of the queue for critical minerals co-operation due to our shared environmental and ethical standards and commitment to a market that is diverse, robust, secure, and underpinned by good governance and environmental, social and corporate governance practice, driven by innovation, free market forces and co-operation.

Together, we can diversify the supply chain and complement each other to protect our economies and societies. However, we must secure a UK-Australia free trade agreement. I am pleased that we are already working to establish a working group on critical minerals with Australia. I urge my colleagues to study closely Australia’s critical minerals strategy as it is very much what we should doing in the UK, and the creation of a critical minerals facilitation office should be explored too.

The UK has an opportunity to take the lead on developing an overarching Five Eyes strategy that will safeguard our prosperity and security for decades to come. It is quite possible that we can work with our mining counterparts to host the midstream and downstream parts of the supply chain, creating a supply chain balance across the Five Eyes alliance. Quotas, too, are particularly important in ensuring that our respective needs are met and that we do not face any shortages. One territory that Five Eyes must pay particular attention to is Greenland. As a member of the all-party parliamentary group for Greenland, I welcome the timely publication of the Greenland critical minerals report, which outlines the crucial role the UK has to play in leading the Five Eyes critical minerals alliance, and I urge the Government to enter into an enhanced partnership with Greenland for critical minerals and to prioritise a bilateral UK-Greenland trade agreement.

I now turn to the benefits of adopting my new strategy on critical minerals for the whole United Kingdom. We are at a crossroads, looking to a future dominated by the green renewables transition and the levelling up agenda. We have left the European Union and we are looking to turbocharge the economy post covid, as well as hosting the G7 and COP26 this year. The building of a critical minerals supply chain will spread huge opportunity to every corner of our country.

I have already spoken about the critical mineral potential of left-behind areas. I know from my own work on locating a hydrogen hub in my constituency of Rother Valley that the domino effect of such supply chains in a region is transformative. For example, Sheffield’s hydrogen giga-factory could be used as part of the electric vehicles and critical minerals supply chain, creating efficiencies and synergies between our burgeoning hydrogen economy and our critical minerals economy. That will not only safeguard existing jobs but create thousands more jobs, providing well-paid employment in the region for generations to come and injecting much needed investment into our high streets in industrial towns such as Dinnington, Maltby, Thurcroft and Swallownest.

As more companies and educational institutions are attracted by that industrial cluster of critical minerals, steelmaking and hydrogen plants, prosperity is sure to follow. Repatriating the critical minerals supply chain is a vital part of our levelling up agenda, upskilling the local population and supporting our green programme. The more steps in the chain located in the UK, the more we control environmental standards, labour standards and ESG matters.

A circular economy underpinned by the expansion of industries such as recycling, repair and remanufacturing could also create over half a million jobs across the UK. Most of these would be in remanufacturing and most would not be in London or the south-east. It would be particularly important to give a second life to machinery that will enable a low-carbon future.

We are, of course, in a race for these manifold benefits. Our industrial objectives are the same as those of Europe and their companies are looking for the same critical minerals we are. The threat is that we will not secure the supply chain as the EU and other nations advance their strategies before we can. Companies looking to take advantage of the new industrial revolution are thinking regionally to maximise profits against the relatively high capital expenditure needed to start these businesses. As such, we find ourselves in a race against friends to secure a supply chain of critical minerals and secure the domestication of component manufacturers to deliver the industrial objectives.

The Minister will not be surprised that I have some policy asks of the Government. The first is to support the development of potential critical minerals by supporting upstream mining capability throughout the UK. The second is the development of a critical mineral midstream. The global supply chain bottleneck is at the midstream section. When the rest of the world focused on bulk mining, China looked to the future of the industry and cornered the market for the minerals we need now. It is a monopolised sector and therefore free market forces do not work. As a Government, we must find innovative ways to fund the right projects to ensure we overcome this global bottleneck. Our regional competitor for critical minerals, the EU, has already started a finance programme looking to raise £16 billion off the back of an institutional £6 billion investment. Unless we find a way to compete, companies will be attracted to where the investment exists.

The third ask is that we work with our international partners to produce a Five Eyes critical minerals strategy. I strongly believe that working with our cousins in Australia and Canada is the key to building that.

The fourth request is that the Government support university programmes, such as the Camborne School of Mines, to make sure that they look at critical minerals. The final ask is that the Government release a critical minerals strategy at the earliest opportunity, to give investors and industry certainty and to allow Members of this House to scrutinise the economic, environmental and societal benefits.

I believe firmly in our 10-point plan for a green recovery and our net zero target, and I am a staunch supporter of the levelling up agenda. The UK has all the necessary skills and talent to be a world leader in the sector, working with our Five Eyes and Commonwealth friends. We just need the Government’s support, direction, and investment to unleash this potential, creating opportunity across Britain, boosting our green economy, and protecting our energy and defence interests. The critical minerals great game has begun. With the Government behind us, I know that the UK will be the winner.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) on securing this truly important debate. I thank him and my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) for their written questions on the subject, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) for his contributions.

The Government are proud of their commitment to net zero, and my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley is right to link it to the question of sourcing raw materials. Indeed, critical raw materials have supported our success so far. The UK’s world-leading offshore wind industry, which uses light rare earth metals, niobium and borates, as well as the more common cobalt, in turbine manufacture, provides a critical source of our renewable energy for our growing economy. The latest figures indicate that our onshore wind assets now generate enough power for more than 10 million UK homes. In solar, which relies on silicon, indium, germanium and gallium for its panels and turbines, we also see a UK success story. More than 99% of UK solar capacity has been deployed since May 2010.

Clearly, such materials underpin the renewable technologies we need to achieve our net zero goals. That is why we are looking at how we can leverage the UK’s extensive R&D ecosystem to lead efforts to deliver the green industrial revolution and maximise sustainable and efficient use of critical materials. Our investment in two new interdisciplinary circular economy centres—UK Research and Innovation’s interdisciplinary circular economy centres for technology metals and for circular metals—is helping to explore how reusing waste materials can deliver environmental benefits and boost the UK economy.

We have also committed £500 million of funding for the automotive transformation fund to build an internationally competitive electric vehicle supply chain, and £318 million for the Faraday battery challenge to support the pioneering work needed to ensure that we can deliver our net zero commitments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be consulting later this year on new measures to help to build a circular economy at home, while driving international collaboration abroad to encourage harmonisation in the circular economy regulations. These efforts will put us at the forefront of future green growth.

The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the importance of resilient supply chains, and that is why the Government are monitoring and assessing the supply of critical materials. The Department for International Trade global supply chain directorate now forms a key part of this work. It will help to ensure access to a resilient critical material supply that adheres to free, fair and open international trade. This will help to advance the plan for growth and our levelling up objectives as we seek to attract investment and boost important aspects of our future economy across all UK nations and regions.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, we are absolutely committed to exploring and developing lithium mining in the UK. We have backed Cornish Lithium and Geothermal Engineering, which are collaborating to build a zero-carbon lithium extraction pipe plant at an existing site in Cornwall. Such commitments provide a powerful stimulus to mobilise private investment, which plays such an important role in the UK economy.

Our foreign direct investment strategy is similarly focused on securing investment in the extraction and, crucially, processing of these commodities. We are working with overseas mining companies and host Governments to support and enable UK investment in the extraction, processing and refining of the raw materials required to deliver our ambitions. We are working to improve international mining conditions. We have implemented a number of programmes to tackle modern slavery in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including a programme in the DRC with the Carter Centre to improve transparency and governance in the mining sector, working with civil society.

I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to respond to these points. I know we shall continue to discuss this critical supply chain in the months and years ahead, as we drive our net zero ambitions into action and delivery and we consider how to play this great game.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.