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Visualizing China’s Dominance in Clean Energy Metals
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Renewable sources of energy are expected to replace fossil fuels over the coming decades, and this large-scale transition will have a downstream effect on the demand of raw materials. More green energy means more wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries needed, and more clean energy metals necessary to build these technologies.
This visualization, based on data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), illustrates where the extraction and processing of key metals for the green revolution take place.
It shows that despite being the world’s biggest carbon polluter, China is also the largest producer of most of the world’s critical minerals for the green revolution.
China produces 60% of all rare earth elements used as components in high technology devices, including smartphones and computers.
The country also has a 13% share of the lithium production market, which is still dominated by Australia (52%) and Chile (22%). The highly reactive element is key to producing rechargeable batteries for mobile phones, laptops, and electric vehicles.
But even more than extraction, China is the dominant economy when it comes to processing operations. The country’s share of refining is around 35% for nickel, 58% for lithium, 65% for cobalt, and 87% for rare earth elements.
Despite being the largest economy in the world, the U.S. does not appear among the largest producers of any of the metals listed. To shorten the gap, the Biden administration recently launched an executive order to review the American strategy for critical and strategic materials.
It’s also worth noting that Russia also does not appear among the top producers when it comes to clean energy metals, despite being one of the world’s leading producers of minerals like copper, iron, and palladium.
While China leads all countries in terms of cobalt processing, the metal itself is primarily extracted in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Still, Chinese interests own 15 of the 17 industrial cobalt operations in the DRC, according to a data analysis by The New York Times and Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.
Unfortunately, the DRC’s cobalt production has been criticized due to reports of corruption and lack of regulation.
Part of the Congolese cobalt comes from artisanal mines with low regulation. Of the 255,000 Congolese artisanal miners, an estimated 40,000 are children, some as young as six years old.
The necessary shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy opens up interesting questions about how geopolitics, and these supply chains, will be affected.
In the race to secure raw materials needed for the green revolution, new world powers could emerge as demand for clean energy metals grows.
For now, China has the lead.
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Nuclear power accounted for 10% of global electricity generated in 2020. Here’s a look at the largest nuclear power producers.
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Nearly 450 reactors around the world supply various nations with nuclear power, combining for about 10% of the world’s electricity, or about 4% of the global energy mix.
But while some countries are turning to nuclear as a clean energy source, nuclear energy generation overall has seen a slowdown since its peak in the 1990s.
The above infographic breaks down nuclear electricity generation by country in 2020 using data from the Power Reactor Information System (PRIS).
Just 15 countries account for more than 91% of global nuclear power production. Here’s how much energy these countries produced in 2020:
In the U.S., nuclear power produces over 50% of the country’s clean electricity. Additionally, 88 of the country’s 96 operating reactors in 2020 received approvals for a 20-year life extension.
China, the world’s second-largest nuclear power producer, is investing further in nuclear energy in a bid to achieve its climate goals. The plan, which includes building 150 new reactors by 2035, could cost as much as $440 billion.
On the other hand, European opinions on nuclear energy are mixed. Germany is the eighth-largest on the list but plans to shutter its last operating reactor in 2022 as part of its nuclear phase-out. France, meanwhile, plans to expand its nuclear capacity.
Although total electricity generation is useful for a high-level global comparison, it’s important to remember that there are some smaller countries not featured above where nuclear is still an important part of the electricity mix.
Here’s a breakdown based on the share of nuclear energy in a country’s electricity mix:
European countries dominate the leaderboard with 14 of the top 15 spots, including France, where nuclear power is the country’s largest source of electricity.
It’s interesting to note that only a few of these countries are top producers of nuclear in absolute terms. For example, in Slovakia, nuclear makes up 53.6% of the electricity mix—however, the country’s four reactors make up less than 1% of total global operating capacity.
On the flipside, the U.S. ranks 17th by share of nuclear power in its mix, despite producing 31% of global nuclear electricity in 2020. This discrepancy is largely due to size and population. European countries are much smaller and produce less electricity overall than larger countries like the U.S. and China.
The nuclear power landscape is constantly changing.
There were over 50 additional nuclear reactors under construction in 2020, and hundreds more are planned primarily in Asia.
As countries turn away from fossil fuels and embrace carbon-free energy sources, nuclear energy might see a resurgence in the global energy mix despite the phase-outs planned in several countries around the globe.
Energy fuels led the way as commodity prices surged in 2021, with only precious metals providing negative returns.
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For investors, 2021 was a year in which nearly every asset class finished in the green, with commodities providing some of the best returns.
The S&P Goldman Sachs Commodity Index (GSCI) was the third best-performing asset class in 2021, returning 37.1% and beating out real estate and all major equity indices.
This graphic from U.S. Global Investors tracks individual commodity returns over the past decade, ranking them based on their individual performance each year.
After a strong performance from commodities (metals especially) in the year prior, 2021 was all about energy commodities.
The top three performers for 2021 were energy fuels, with coal providing the single best annual return of any commodity over the past 10 years at 160.6%. According to U.S. Global Investors, coal was also the least volatile commodity of 2021, meaning investors had a smooth ride as the fossil fuel surged in price.
Source: U.S. Global Investors
The only commodities in the red this year were precious metals, which failed to stay positive despite rising inflation across goods and asset prices. Gold and silver had returns of -3.6% and -11.7% respectively, with platinum returning -9.6% and palladium, the worst performing commodity of 2021, at -22.2%.
Aside from the precious metals, every other commodity managed double-digit positive returns, with four commodities (crude oil, coal, aluminum, and wheat) having their best single-year performances of the past decade.
The partial resumption of travel and the reopening of businesses in 2021 were both powerful catalysts that fueled the price rise of energy commodities.
After crude oil’s dip into negative prices in April 2020, black gold had a strong comeback in 2021 as it returned 55.01% while being the most volatile commodity of the year.
Natural gas prices also rose significantly (46.91%), with the UK and Europe’s natural gas prices rising even more as supply constraints came up against the winter demand surge.
Energy commodity returns 2021
Despite being the second worst performer of 2020 with the clean energy transition on the horizon, coal was 2021’s best commodity.
High electricity demand saw coal return in style, especially in China which accounts for one-third of global coal consumption.
2021 was a tale of two metals, as precious metals and base metals had opposing returns.
Copper, nickel, zinc, aluminum, and lead, all essential for the clean energy transition, kept up last year’s positive returns as the EV batteries and renewable energy technologies caught investors’ attention.
Demand for these energy metals looks set to continue in 2022, with Tesla having already signed a $1.5 billion deal for 75,000 tonnes of nickel with Talon Metals.
Metals price performance 2021
On the other end of the spectrum, precious metals simply sunk like a rock last year.
Investors turned to equities, real estate, and even cryptocurrencies to preserve and grow their investments, rather than the traditionally favorable gold (-3.64%) and silver (-11.72%). Platinum and palladium also lagged behind other commodities, only returning -9.64% and -22.21% respectively.
In a year of over and underperformers, grains kept up their steady track record and notched their fifth year in a row of positive returns.
Both corn and wheat provided double-digit returns, with corn reaching eight-year highs and wheat reaching prices not seen in over nine years. Overall, these two grains followed 2021’s trend of increasing food prices, as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s food price index reached a 10-year high, rising by 17.8% over the course of the year.
Grains price performance 2021
As inflation across commodities, assets, and consumer goods surged in 2021, investors will now be keeping a sharp eye for a pullback in 2022. We’ll have to wait and see whether or not the Fed’s plans to increase rates and taper asset purchases will manage to provide price stability in commodities.
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