8 November 2022
by Rachel Stonehouse

Critical thought - response to the UK Government’s Critical Minerals Strategy

IOM3 Policy Research Fellow, Rachel Stonehouse, presents the Institute’s review of the UK Government’s recently released Critical Minerals Strategy.

The UK Government wants to improve the resilience of its critical minerals supply chain © Miltiadis Fragkidis/ unsplash

The UK Government published Resilience for the future: the UK’s critical minerals strategy this summer, setting out its plan for improving the resilience of critical minerals supply chains and increasing the UK’s security of supply.

Publication of this policy paper brings welcome recognition that mining and minerals are the bedrock of modern life, and is an important step towards addressing the risks associated with the UK’s reliance on complex and delicate global supply chains.

With international actors such as the US, EU, Australia, China and Canada actively moving to secure their critical minerals needs for some time, and a very real risk of the UK falling behind, it is a welcome and significant development to have a published strategy setting out the UK Government’s intent.

The document contains a great deal of positive language, picking up on a number of themes that IOM3 works to support, progress and promote. It provides a sound analysis of the challenges, and explores a broad range of potential opportunities and interventions that will need to be taken in combination to ensure a more resilient and sustainable supply of critical minerals in both the short- and long-term. It recognises international collaboration will be key, is well-balanced, and is clearly set out using the Accelerate, Collaborate, Enhance (ACE) approach.

Accelerate growth of the UK’s domestic capabilities – this acknowledges the UK’s need to rebuild the mining sector and, without making this the centrepiece, recognises the realism around what resources are available.

A welcome focus and a priority for IOM3 is the need to address the growing mining and mineral processing skills gap and encourage more participation in the sector. The need to build skills and attract talent also extends beyond geologists, mining and mineral engineering professionals to include cross-cutting professions such as software, finance and research. These are areas where the UK can still be a global player and a centre of excellence in the future, from technology developments to leading environmental, social and governance (ESG) ideals.

It is good to see the circular economy identified as a core mitigation strategy, including the promotion of better design, creating new business models for durability, improving resource efficiency, enabling reuse, as well as developing 
end-of-life recovery and recycling.

Retaining more critical minerals in the UK will play an important role in reducing the demand for primary supply and its associated impacts and risks. Designing products that rely on critical minerals to last longer will be a key strategy and help to reduce long-term reliance. This will require procurement geared to this approach, particularly government procurement, and may also require incentives and alignments through standards.

Collaborate with international partners – this is perhaps the least clear section of the strategy and the question remains whether the actions outlined are enough to change the prevailing situation. The UK may need to take further action to help build and invest in supply chains.

While it is clear that international collaboration will be key, this may be more accessible for pre-competitive research. A platform is required to enable greater collaboration with partners in this field, as the UK had within the European Framework programme. An agreed starting point for contracts, alignment between funding programme objectives, and high-level agreement on how to manage exploitation are particularly needed.

Enhance international markets – this presents the opportunity for the UK to shine and is identified as such through ESG standards, regulated financial and exchange markets, and pursuing responsible finance.

With the UK’s mining history and expertise, it has the opportunity to significantly influence and bring nations together to set the right kind of standards. Effort should be made to harness and maintain the UK’s leading position and influence, to ensure we remain a part of the picture.

IOM3 has welcomed the extensive stakeholder engagement opportunities to inform decision making, including through representation on the Critical Minerals Expert Committee.

As always, the devil will be in the detail and now this roadmap must be translated through to implementation. IOM3 looks forward to the promised delivery plan and continued working with government, members and the wider community to support the translation of ambition into meaningful action.

As the conversation evolves, it is important that a full supply chain approach is carried through and that policies are balanced across the value chain. The framing and use of ‘minerals’ in the strategy title, expert group and intelligence centre, etc., rather than ‘materials’, must not cloud the fact that we don’t rely on individual minerals or elements, but combinations processed into engineered materials, often through multiple steps, for the unique properties they bestow. Failure to get enough of any one of these will lead to supply constraints.

More broadly, this strategy and its promised delivery plan should be viewed as steps in the larger effort towards a more holistic approach and strategic view of materials.

Authors

Rachel Stonehouse

Policy Fellow, IOM3