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Post-Petro Geopolitics in the Tech Metals Age

The sands of geopolitics are shifting. As Anumita Roychowdhury, Snigdha Das, Moushumi Mohanty, Shubham Srivastava outline in a multipart series for India’s Down to Earth magazine, global competition, cooperation and conflicts are less about arms and oil, and more about critical technologies as the world is experiencing a “Fourth Industrial Revolution, an age of advanced technology based on information and communication, where artificial intelligence, self-driving cars and the internet of things are not just sweeping across businesses and societies but also evolving rapidly.”

They argue that the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated deployment of these applications earlier than anticipated. That, coupled with the fact that “50 per cent of the world’s GDP and half of global CO2 emissions now covered by a net-zero commitment” with close to 115 countries having pledged carbon neutrality by 2050, will have fundamental ramifications for geopolitics — the “scramble for natural resources to drive its energy requirements.”

They point to a study by the UK’s major oil company, BP, which indicates that after more than 150 years of near-uninterrupted growth demand for oil may have already peaked and now “faces an unprecedented decades-long decline.”

The massive momentum for the energy transition will, they say, “along with the need to attain technology supremacy, increase countries’ dependence on materials necessary for the technological marvels of tomorrow,” and will ultimately have us see global geopolitics “shift from oil producing countries to the rare earth and other critical mineral producing countries in the coming years.”

Such are the consequences of the world having entered the “Tech Metals Age,” as ARPN’s Daniel McGroarty phrased it in 2019. It’s a brave new world, and adjusting to the new realities and thriving in them will warrant a rethink — and a fast one at that. We may be leaving the Petro Age, but we can take a page from its playbook.

As McGroarty told members of Congress during a virtual forum on critical minerals held earlier this month:

“(…) if we entered the Tech Metals Age, we’re not lost without a map in this new world. We can take a page from the successful effort to reverse decades of dependency on foreign oil: The secret to achieving American energy independence? An ‘all of the above’ strategy that didn’t pit one form of energy against another, but embraced oil and natural gas and coal and wind and solar and hydro, biofuels and nuclear power. The common denominator: Energy produced in the U.S., by American companies and American workers, with American ingenuity and American investment.”

That “all of the above” approach should extend both to resource production and processing, as well as policy, a view that was reinforced by the latest IEA report on a pathway to carbon neutrality by 2050.

Here’s hoping that the Biden Administration — after taking several positive steps in the direction of “all of the above” — acknowledges that in a post-Petro Tech Metals Age, there is no room for simplistic “not in my backyard,” or “keep it all in the ground” mantras.