As global leaders unite to combat climate change and steer the world towards cleaner energy sources, the significance of critical minerals in the energy transition is becoming increasingly apparent.
African countries, grappling with the consequences of climate change, are emerging as pivotal players in reducing global carbon emissions while possessing abundant reserves of vital minerals required for the shift.
The African continent is a treasure trove of critical minerals essential for advancing the energy transition. These minerals encompass copper, crucial for power lines; cobalt, nickel, lithium, and graphite, necessary for battery production; and platinum group metals, vital for electrolysis and green hydrogen generation.
Geopolitical tensions, however, threaten to impede the smooth progress of the energy transition, requiring global cooperation in the face of the climate emergency.
The conflict in Ukraine has already had severe repercussions on African populations, but an armed confrontation resulting from the escalating China-US rivalry in the Asia-Pacific region could exacerbate the situation to a far greater extent.
Africa is increasingly becoming a battleground for competition between China and Western nations, each vying for control over critical minerals.
This rivalry is inadvertently empowering African leaders, encouraging them to assert their influence on the international stage. To harness this opportunity effectively and align it with global objectives, leaders must transcend resource nationalism and grandstanding in favor of citizens’ interests and the broader achievements of sustainable goals.
Presently, China dominates the critical minerals market, owning or operating most cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and leading the development of Zimbabwe’s lithium industry.
However, this dominance is not without controversy. While Beijing’s political support has enabled it to secure mining deals in Africa, such agreements are increasingly scrutinized and challenged by civil society and local governments.
One such example is the Sicomines contract, which Congolese authorities investigated, revealing a significant disparity in the benefits received by the DRC and Chinese counterparts.
Current DRC President Félix Tshisekedi’s critique of this deal showcases the need for more equitable agreements that prioritize African development.
In response to China’s dominance, the United States and its allies have started taking measures to reduce Beijing’s control over critical mineral supply chains.
Initiatives like the Minerals Security Partnership aim to promote resilient supply chains and uphold higher environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards.
Furthermore, the US and the EU have introduced regulations incentivizing the processing of critical minerals within their territories.
For Africa to seize this historic opportunity for investment in its resources, leaders must seek partnerships that enhance local technical capabilities, foster industrialization, and create employment opportunities.
The US, DRC, and Zambia have already taken steps towards establishing a Special Economic Zone for electric vehicle battery production.
However, for this goodwill to translate into concrete action, African partners must advocate for strong ESG standards and transparent regulations within their extractive industries.
Effective oversight of critical mineral extraction and processing will not only encourage higher standards among Chinese operators but also drive their focus towards sustainability and local community engagement.
African governments and civil society organizations can expect Chinese investors to develop projects that mutually benefit both parties.
As the energy transition gains momentum, Africa’s significance on the global stage will inevitably grow. Governments in the region face the challenge of securing fair agreements that maximize the potential of their finite resources while driving sustainable development.
Whether this partnership comes from China or the West will depend on the risk appetite and values of individual investors. The US, EU, and their allies have laid the groundwork for investment, but there is still much work ahead to ensure a prosperous and sustainable energy future for Africa and the world.