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Critical minerals: the UK opportunity

Eileen Maes details discussions dedicated to highlighting the UK’s opportunities in developing alternative critical mineral supply chains

Words by Eileen Maes
30 May 2024
Parys Mountain, Copper Mine, Amlwch, Anglesey, Wales

Parys Mountain, in Anglesey, Wales, has been mined for copper since the early Bronze Age and, during the 18th century, was one of the largest copper mines in the world. Critical minerals such as copper are essential to the green economy, so the UK is looking to develop secure supply chains

Critical minerals are the building blocks of our modern and future green economy. They’re needed to manufacture everything from computers to electric vehicle (EV) batteries, solar panels to wind turbines. But unforeseen developments and geopolitical tensions such as the COVID-19 pandemic and Russo-Ukraine War are demonstrating more than ever the vulnerability of our critical mineral supply chains. 

In the past few months, China has imposed export restrictions on graphite, gallium, and germanium. Indonesia, too, continues to restrict nickel exports to develop its domestic downstream sector (The Economist, 2023). To showcase what the UK has to offer in the mission to develop alternative critical mineral supply chains, and to bring together international partners to promote collaboration, the Critical Minerals Association (CMA UK) and Geological Society Business Forum (GSBF) hosted their 3rd Annual Conference, The UK Opportunity for Critical Minerals, in November 2023. 

The meeting attracted a diverse and international audience of over 300 delegates, bringing together innovators, explorers, chemists, policymakers, investors, miners, recyclers, processors, parliamentarians, researchers, lawyers, environmentalists, and many more to discuss the importance of building supply chain resilience, and how policy can enable UK industry to achieve its Green Industrial Revolution and net-zero ambitions. Due to unprecedented interest, the meeting venue in Burlington House was expanded to include both the Geological Society and Royal Society of Chemistry – further highlighting the opportunities for cross-sector collaboration on critical minerals. 

Top of the agenda

In an opening address, Kirsty Benham (CMA UK) highlighted the Association’s work and international expansion, with CMA having launched sister associations in Australia and the US, as well as the Critical Minerals International Alliance. In the UK, the CMA (UK) has been pivotal in uniting the critical minerals value chain (which includes production, distribution, disposal, recycling etc.) and amplifying their voices to be at the forefront of influencing policy. The conference was inaugurated with a breakfast reception at the House of Commons hosted by Cherilyn Mackrory MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Critical Minerals, as well as an opening keynote speech from Nusrat Ghani MP, then Minister of Business and Trade. Minister Ghani reassured that critical minerals are “firmly at the top of her agenda”, and that the UK undoubtedly has the potential to become a global player in the development of alternative critical mineral supply chains.

Attendees at the CMA UK and GSBF’s 3rd Annual Conference, The UK Opportunity for Critical Minerals.

It was standing-room only for some delegates during the CMA UK and GSBF’s 3rd Annual Conference, The UK Opportunity for Critical Minerals. Unprecedented interest and attendance levels meant the venue was expanded to include both the Geological Society and Royal Society of Chemistry buildings in Burlington House

A new world

As the race to net zero gathers pace, demand for critical minerals will increase four-fold by 2050 (IEA, 2022). Given this trajectory, the development of diverse, resilient, and responsible critical mineral supply chains is a paramount task for governments and industries around the world. The Minerals Security Partnership (MSP), for instance, is a coalition between 13 nations and the European Union (EU) which aims to catalyse public and private investment into the development of alternative critical minerals supply chains. Recently the MSP has expanded to include a new member, India; a US-UK Critical Minerals Agreement was announced in June 2023; and additional UK critical minerals partnerships have been struck with Canada, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Zambia, and Kazakhstan. 

“The UK brings a lot to the table,” said Rachael Parrish (Foreign Service Officer, US Department of State) alongside panel speakers Matthew Hatfield (Critical Minerals Lead, Department for Business & Trade), Marcin Zydowicz (Trade Commissioner, Energy & Mining, Canadian High Commission), and Ana Nishnianidze (Commissioner, UK & Ireland, Australian Trade & Investment Commission), who highlighted the UK’s unique ‘convening power’, rich manufacturing and mining history, and world-leading finance, research and innovation.

Government leaders from Canada and Australia who attended the meeting also illuminated the abundant opportunities that exist in their jurisdictions for critical minerals extraction, processing, and recycling. The Honourable Ralph E. Goodale (High Commissioner for Canada in the UK) spoke of Canada as the “destination of choice” for investment given its secure and sustainable sourcing, outstanding mining expertise, strong Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) credentials, extensive technological and manufacturing capabilities, and long history of close collaboration with the UK. David Stewart (Agent-General, Queensland), the Honourable George Pirie (Minister of Mines, Ontario), Ranj Pillai (Premier, Yukon), and Nathalie Camden (Deputy Minister of Mines, Quebec) also discussed the unique qualities of their respective regions. 

Demand for critical minerals will increase four-fold by 2050

Dylan Geraets (Mayer Brown) provided an overview of the EU’s Critical Raw Materials Act and how it is equipping the bloc with the tools to ensure a secure and responsible supply of raw materials. He outlined measures including the Act’s differentiation of critical and strategic minerals, shorter planning and permitting timeframes, and clear benchmarks for domestic capacities.

Saudi Arabia is another nation dramatically ramping up its investments into critical minerals. In 2023, Saudi Arabia signed a bilateral critical minerals agreement with the UK, as well as an additional four nations following the success of their 3rd Future Minerals Forum in Riyadh in February 2024. His Excellency Khalid Al-Mudaifer (Vice-Minister for Mining Affairs) elaborated on the rich and untapped geological potential of the region, how ESG is being promoted and embedded in their supply chains, and how his government draws on global expertise to ensure its investments create new value chains to diversify supply for everyone. 

Many countries across the African continent also have rich geological potential for critical minerals, including for rare-earth elements, graphite, cobalt, copper, and platinum-group metals. These countries will be looking to develop their resources to boost economic growth and improve standards of living. In another panel discussion titled “A Just Transition in Africa”, Baroness Northover (House of Lords), Stacy Hope (Women in Mining, ERM, Fair Cobalt Alliance), Madeline R. Young (University of Exeter), Veronica Bolton Smith (The Connect Africa Network), and Joseph Mansour (Critical Minerals Delivery Lead, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) explored how foreign nations should work with resource-rich developing nations to ensure extraction is in line with the goals of socio-economic growth and sustainable development.

“It’s not just a matter of mining more and mining better,” said Joseph, “but moving those [resource-rich developing nations] up the value chain themselves. It is incumbent on countries like the UK, who will mostly be a consumer nation, to ensure that this ‘resource boom’ works for the benefit of resource-rich countries.” Joseph went on to outline the compatibility of the UK and Africa – many of what African nations and businesses are missing are the biggest strengths of the UK, particularly in geological exploration and mining finance. 

“Africa needs to be part of a strategy with the rest of the world,” added Veronica. “It shouldn’t be dictated to. It needs to make its own agenda and attract investors in that way.” These discussions led to a dynamic debate about China’s policy of ‘non-interference’ on the continent, whether it is truly appealing to African governments, and what the West can and should do to offer an alternative method of investment. While the panellists disagreed about the benefits of China’s approach, they found consensus on the value of the UK “showing rather than telling” what it can bring to the table.

Sarah Gordon, co-founder of Satarla and Responsible Raw Materials, leads a roundtable discussion

Sarah Gordon, co-founder of Satarla and Responsible Raw Materials, leads a roundtable discussion on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues

The UK opportunity

After an insightful overview of the UK’s mining history and some of the ongoing projects at the British Geological Survey (BGS), Kathryn Goodenough (BGS) provided an overview of the Critical Minerals Intelligence Centre (CMIC; ukcmic.org) – a group led by the BGS with support and funding from the Department for Business and Trade. The CMIC recently published a report on a revised methodology for measuring criticality (Josso, 2023). Across the globe, assessments of mineral criticality are flexible, and are differentiated and adapted to reflect differing national needs and objectives. The CMIC’s report reviews existing methodologies, presents a more harmonised approach, and expands the list of proposed UK candidate materials from 26 to 82. 

But to attract investment, the UK needs more than a criticality methodology— it needs to display conditions for stability and predictability, and government plays a vital role in providing a reliable concierge service to demonstrate support to business. A panel comprising Eva Marquis (Camborne School of Mines), Richard Williams (Cornish Metals), Nick Pople (Northern Lithium), and Charles Pembroke (ERM), and chaired by Mike Armitage (GSBF), discussed mineral rights, planning and permitting, and developing local infrastructure and utilities. Charles highlighted that over 40% of delayed or failed mining projects in the UK blame issues with planning and permitting, which breeds a damaging uncertainty in the business environment. The panel emphasised how planning regulations should be streamlined (especially for strategic projects), data from geological surveys should be updated and made accessible to the public, and “willpower and funding” from local planning authorities is transformative in corroborating the success of mining projects. 

Moreover, the UK is home to world-class universities and research institutions that specialise in geoscience, mining, metallurgy, and materials engineering. Innovation will be key to developing technologies that lower carbon emissions, boost recycling capability, and enable material substitution and novel extraction methods for critical minerals. Dan Smith (University of Leicester), Sheena Hindocha (Innovate UK KTN), Nic Stirk (Materials Nexus), Christian Peters (Seloxium), and Sabine Anderson (SRK Consulting) discussed the importance of innovation and scientific collaboration in the development of alternative critical mineral supply chains. “Building trust so there is enough information sharing” between different actors and sectors is crucial to addressing this problem, said Christian. Bridging the skills gaps to sustain the UK’s place in the global value chain is also essential, yet the UK is currently struggling with a shortage of skills needed across a multitude of disciplines. 

There was a strong emphasis on the importance of ESG

Integration & collaboration

New challenges for the critical minerals sector emerge every day. One, for instance, is the rise in popularity of products like disposable vapes that possess lithium-ion batteries, but which are not widely or systemically recycled. Regulations need to be updated to encourage investment in and growth of the recycling industry, as the UK cannot meet the material demands of net zero by primary extraction alone. Panellists Julie-Ann Adams (European Electronics Recyclers Association), Lilia Guittari-Lickovski (Department for Business and Trade), Chris O’Brien (AMTE Power) and Ros Lund (Coal Authority) led a discussion on the current obstacles and opportunities for waste recycling in the UK, including slow permitting times relative to other countries, a lack of production of agglomerates on an economically viable level, and the lack of an end-of-life plan for products reaching the market today. A later panel discussion led by Margery Ryan (Johnson Matthey), and featuring Anna Gibbs (Phillips66), Luke Hampton (Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders) and Grant Smith (Less Common Metals), also highlighted how current trade and taxation policies in the UK do little to support the use of recycled materials in downstream manufacturing. 

Lucy Smith (Materials Processing Institute), David Payne (Mineral Products Association), Izzi Monk (Royal Society of Chemistry), Sarah Connolly (Innovate UK) and Jacqui Murray (National Manufacturing Institute Scotland) then turned the discussion to cross-sector collaboration. Lucy emphasised that cross-sector dialogue is not only vital to the achievement of the UK’s critical minerals needs, but to the establishment of a circular economy. The panellists illustrated examples of successful collaboration from the site scale with co-production of materials, to the international scale with multinational companies using their influence to create roadmaps for industry. The panel also emphasised that greater transparency and data sharing encourages more collaboration through trust, and illuminates where value can be generated.

In talks around responsible financing, Amanda van Dyke (ARCH Emerging Markets Partners), Fiona Clouder (ClouderVista, Appian Capital Advisory LLP), Christophe Roux (Société Générale), Jamie Strauss (Digbee) and Sarah Gordon (Satarla) celebrated London as an excellent city for finance, with a long history serving as an international economic centre for commodities trading. More recently, London has become a hub for ESG organisations who are driving big transformations in industry. The panel detailed how critical minerals investors can work responsibly and sustainably, for instance by investing in all areas of the minerals value chain.

Throughout the day there was a strong emphasis on the importance of ESG – the acronym was uttered in every presentation and panel discussion. It is increasingly difficult for mining companies to raise funds without exhibiting strong ESG credentials; investors carry out vigilant due-diligence processes to avoid financing projects that will not succeed in the long term. As a result, ESG is the best way to add longevity and value to projects. Speakers also highlighted that investment should be targeted towards countries and communities that are under-developed to precipitate and influence a global shift towards a more resilient and diversified economy, and thus a more sustainable future.

Unanimous was the sentiment that the UK is a country with great promise in growing downstream mineral supply chains. Its impressive research and development and rich industrial history has established chemical and downstream manufacturers for rare-earth elements, graphite and more. Downstream manufacturers are also beginning to interact and work more with raw material producers, something that has seldom happened before, evidencing a change in industry and a shift towards circularity. Though it is impractical for the UK to compete against China on critical minerals, the UK must cooperate with domestic industry and its international allies to onshore and diversify as much supply as possible, to ensure that its critical mineral supply chains are as responsible, transparent, and resilient as they can be. The journey to net zero cannot be pursued half-heartedly. 


Eileen Maes

Critical Minerals Association, UK

This is an edited and modified version of the CMA blog post “CMA (UK) & GSBF 3rd Annual Conference: The UK Opportunity for Critical Minerals”, published in December 2023 and available at www.criticalmineral.org/post/cma-uk-gsbf-3rd-annual-conference-the-uk-opportunity-for-critical-minerals

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