The advances in materials science have been fundamentally transforming the way we look at metals and minerals – both from a usage, as well as a supply and demand perspective. With that, the nature of potential resource conflict has also changed.
As USGS National Minerals Information Center scholars Andrew L. Gulleya, Nedal T. Nassar, and Sean Xuna observe in a new Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study, resource conflicts of the past “have often centered on fuel minerals (particularly oil). Future resource conflicts may, however, focus more on competition for nonfuel minerals that enable emerging technologies.”
The authors argue that while more and more stakeholders and researchers have acknowledged and are increasingly concerned about the concept of import reliance, “few studies assess import reliance and none compare import reliance of countries concurrently.”
Against this backdrop, Gulleya, Nassar and Xuna measure and compare the current foreign mineral dependence of 42 minerals for the world’s two largest national economies, the United States and China.
Among their key findings:
“We find that China relies on imports for over half of its consumption for 19 minerals, compared with 24 for the United States— 11 of which are common to both. It is for these 11 minerals that competition between the United States and China may become the most contentious.”
“Unless reliance can be reduced through substitution, improved processing efficiencies, increased domestic production, or recycling, the United States and China will increasingly vie for access to overseas assets that produce minerals in [that category]”
“Increasing demand for minerals that enable sustainable and defensive technologies may intensify international resource competition during the 21st century—especially for minerals that cannot be substituted and have highly concentrated production. While improvements in recycling, mineral processing, material efficiency, substitution, and domestic production may alleviate import reliance and resource competition in the long run, such factors are often constrained in the short run by existing technology, existing manufacturing capital, and long development timeframes.”
Policy makers – take note.