Rapidly expanding the recycling of products, like solar panels and electric vehicles, would avoid UK supply chain risks from China

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One year on from the prime minister’s Ten point plan for a green industrial revolution, a new report by think tank Green Alliance says growing UK green industries will face critical raw material supply risks, unless action is taken now.

Looking at projected use of lithium, cobalt, silver and rare earth elements by the UK’s low carbon industries over coming decades, it found the UK will easily exceed its per capita share of critical raw material reserves by 2050. As China controls 60 per cent of global mine production and 40 per cent of rare earth metal reserves, there are significant supply chain risks to UK businesses.

However, the UK can limit the threat of supply risks over the coming decades if it builds up its domestic recycling of valuable materials and cuts energy use, reducing the pressure on technology growth.

Through economy-wide measures, such as improving freight efficiency and insulating homes, and by increasing car sharing, public transport and active travel, the study shows that the UK could halve its total use of some critical resources by 2030 compared to our current trajectory. But if the UK also rapidly scaled up recycling of green products and their components, we could meet almost all the UK critical raw material demand for electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines and solar panels from secondary materials by 2050.

In 2019, the UK’s still small fleet of electric cars and vans contained over 1,400 tonnes of lithium and 800 tonnes of cobalt, worth £26.3 million and £31.5 million respectively. Green Alliance’s analysis suggests, if recycled, that volume of lithium and cobalt would be enough to make 220,000 battery electric cars, which is ten per cent of projected new sales in 2035. This opportunity will increase substantially as the number of electric vehicles increases. Such measures have the potential to contribute to the 450,000 jobs which an expanded circular economy can provide, whilst cutting dependence on China for critical raw materials. [4]

The government has promised a critical minerals strategy next year. But this is set to focus on securing supply chains rather than on the importance of retaining vital materials in the UK economy through reprocessing and reuse, or considering how to more efficiently deploy the green technologies that require critical raw materials.

Susan Evans, senior policy adviser of Green Alliance, said:
“With net zero, there’s also a big opportunity for the UK to become much more resilient and self-sufficient.

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“By investing in making our homes more efficient and improving public transport, we can cut the amount of energy we need to use and, therefore, reduce our reliance on imported critical raw materials.

“This is also about ending needless waste. It would mean keeping these valuable materials in use, creating jobs in new recycling industries, and lowering household energy bills at the same time.”

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