Courtesy of Janice Zinck

As the world embarks on the pathway to net-zero emissions, Canada is primed to capitalize on the rising global demand for the critical minerals needed for the transition to a low-carbon and digitalized economy. As the only country in North America with the required mineral resources to produce advanced batteries for electric vehicles, the opportunity for our minerals and materials sector is unprecedented. Not only does Canada have exceptional mineral wealth, other factors such as undisputed ESG (environment, social and governance) credentials, and recognized expertise in mining, metallurgy and materials science, have the potential to position Canada as the leading responsible and reliable supplier of critical minerals, not only in North America, but globally.

As widely reported, the global demand for critical minerals is expected to increase significantly over the coming decades to feed the manufacturing requirements for renewable energy and clean-technology applications, such as electric vehicles (EVs) and grid storage batteries, permanent magnets, solar panels, wind turbines and small nuclear reactors. In addition, critical minerals will continue to be needed for advanced manufacturing applications including defence and security technologies, consumer electronics and semiconductors. The World Bank and the International Energy Agency (IEA) project global demand for EV and battery-storage minerals like lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite to increase 10 to 30 times by 2040, relative to 2020. Ultimately, the global critical minerals market is expected to be valued at US$400 billion by 2040 according to the IEA. More and more, the control of critical minerals and their value chains is becoming a powerful currency in the evolving green economy.

Many developed, industrialized economies have compiled lists of critical minerals, most based on supply chain vulnerabilities. In March 2021, Canada released its first ever critical minerals list. Thirty-one minerals are deemed essential to Canada’s economic security and are required for the country’s transition to a low-carbon economy. Canada already produces over 60 minerals and metals and is a leading global producer of several critical minerals, including nickel and cobalt, and has the potential to supply more for both domestic and international markets. Canada also has significant lithium and graphite resources, and is host to a variety of advanced stage projects for rare earth elements (REEs).

While our geologic endowment is certainly an advantage, it will take more than rich deposits to become a leader in critical mineral value chains. Canada’s highly skilled geological, mining, metallurgical and materials workforce will need to work collaboratively to provide the innovation necessary to transform rocks in the ground into advanced critical mineral value chain inputs and advanced end-products, that are both economically and ESG competitive.

Related: The supply chain link

Strategically, Canada has a strong foundation of innovation and ESG performance. Through programs like the Mining Association of Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining program, mineral traceability initiatives, and leading-edge mineral research and development (R&D), Canada has cemented its place among the world leaders in minerals and metals. Building on the recently completed R&D program on rare earth elements and chromite, Canada launched major funding for targeted research and development for upstream critical minerals processing and battery precursors and related materials engineering from primary and secondary critical mineral sources, and the formation of a Canadian Critical Minerals Centre of Excellence. These investments will further contribute to advancing Canada’s critical mineral industries. 

A collective effort across the country and across value chains is needed to ensure success. Several Canadian provinces have developed or are developing critical minerals plans or strategies. Most jurisdictions recognize that critical minerals are key to a green recovery post-pandemic and the basis for sustainable wealth. In addition, we are seeing needed investment into foundational infrastructure to support these critical mineral value chains such as Saskatchewan’s $31 million investment to build a rare earth processing facility to deliver individual high-purity REEs.

We are not alone in this opportunity. Allied partners are looking to Canada to help build priority value chains as a source of responsible and secure supply for critical minerals. In January 2020, Canada and the U.S. announced the Joint Action Plan on Critical Minerals to advance our mutual interest in securing these supply chains. Recognizing our potential, Canada, along with Australia, were recently invited to join the Critical Minerals Trilateral (US-EU-Japan) global partnership.

Another emerging facet of the critical minerals space is the development of international standards. ISO standards have historically been seen as strictly technical, but more recently there has been growing interest in international standards for critical minerals. Canada is leading the development of several critical minerals standards, such as the traceability standard for rare earth elements, and is an active member of ISO’s new strategic advisory group on critical minerals.

The time is now to leverage Canada’s minerals and metals to foster domestic critical mineral industries and build full robust value chains. This includes utilizing circular approaches to accelerate production and reduce carbon emissions. By strengthening and expanding critical mineral ecosystems, domestically and globally, Canada will be able to take full advantage of the opportunity that lies ahead.

 Janice Zinck, former director of critical minerals and strategic resources, Natural Resources Canada, is executive director, Geoscience and Mines