Strategically important metals - Science and Technology Committee Contents

1  Introduction

Why metals?

1.  Metals are essential for the quality of life that modern society is accustomed to. They are key raw materials for advanced manufacturing, low-carbon technologies and many other industries. In November 2010, the Government published its plans for economic growth in the paper, The path to strong, sustainable and balanced growth.[1] This paper indentified five specific challenges in "getting behind" British business and improving the UK's performance, two of these challenges were:

consolidating existing strengths in [...] advanced manufacturing to drive export growth;

supporting new and expanding industries where the UK has the potential to become a world leader including in low-carbon technologies.[2]

Ensuring a stable supply of metals and other raw materials will be key to addressing these challenges.

2.  Metals are present in varying but finite quantities in the Earth's crust and are distributed unevenly. There is concern that some metals may run out in the coming decades.[3] Supply risks to metals have also been a focus of recent media attention.[4] Multiple factors affect the supply of metals. For example, in September 2010, China—which supplies over 97% of a group of metals known as the rare earth elements (REEs, see paragraph 14), which are essential for many high-tech products—reportedly stopped exports of REEs to Japan in response to the arrest of a Chinese trawler captain in disputed waters of the South China Sea.[5] Metal supply shortages, for example due to geopolitical or economic issues, could have a significant impact on the industries using them and hence the economies of countries reliant on those industries. The increasing economic power and global influence of transition economies such as Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) has heightened concerns over competition for scarce resources.[6]

The inquiry

3.  The Government's plans for growth and, more broadly, concerns about the security of supply of strategic metals prompted this inquiry; in particular we were interested in the potential impact on those who required strategic metals in the UK.

4.  On 11 November 2010 we made a call for written evidence on the following questions:

  • Is there a global shortfall in the supply and availability of strategically important metals essential to the production of advanced technology in the UK?
  • How vulnerable is the UK to a potential decline or restriction in the supply of strategically important metals? What should the Government be doing to safeguard against this and to ensure supplies are produced ethically?
  • How desirable, easy and cost-effective is it to recover and recycle metals from discarded products? How can this be encouraged? Where recycling currently takes place, what arrangements need to be in place to ensure it is done cost-effectively, safely and ethically?
  • Are there substitutes for those metals that are in decline in technological products manufactured in the UK? How can these substitutes be more widely applied?
  • What opportunities are there to work internationally on the challenge of recovering, recycling and substituting strategically important metals?

5.  We received 22 written submissions and held three oral evidence sessions between January and March 2011:

  • On 26 January, we took evidence from two panels of witnesses. First: Professor David Manning, Secretary, Professional Matters, Geological Society; Dr Bernie Rickinson, Chief Executive, Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining; and Dr Mike Pitts, Industry Technology Division, Royal Society of Chemistry. Second: Ian Hetherington, Director General, British Metals Recycling Association; Sophie Thomas, Trustee, the Design Council and Founding Director, Thomas Matthews Ltd; Tony Hartwell, Knowledge Transfer Manager, The Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Network; and Louis Brimacombe, Head of the Environment & Sustainability Research Team, Tata Steel.
  • On 16 February, we took evidence from: Charles Emmerson, Senior Fellow, Chatham House; Dr Jonathan Di John, Lecturer in Political Economy, School of Oriental and African Studies; Anthony Lipmann, Managing Director, Lipmann Walton & Co Ltd and former Chairman, Minor Metals Trade Association; and Charles Swindon, Chair of the Trade and Lobby Committee, Minor Metals Trade Association.
  • On 2 March, we took evidence from two panels of witnesses. First: Professor Robert Watson, Chief Scientific Adviser, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra); and Professor David Clary, Chief Scientific Adviser, Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO). Finally, Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science.

6.  We would like to put on record our thanks to those who provided written or oral evidence to this inquiry.

Structure of the report

7.  In chapter 2 we provide background information on the definition of strategic metals, the issues around metal scarcity and the Government's policies on metal use and consumption in the UK. Chapter 3 covers issues affecting the trade in strategic metals. Chapter 4 looks at the social and environmental impacts of mining overseas. Chapter 5 investigates the potential for recycling and reuse of strategic metals in the UK. Finally, chapter 6 looks at exploration for and extraction of strategic metals in the UK.

1   HM Treasury & Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Path to Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth, November 2010 Back

2   HM Treasury & Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Path to Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth, November 2010, para 1.75 Back

3   "Earth's Natural Wealth: An Audit", New Scientist, 23 May 2007; "Endangered Elements: Critical Thinking", Chemistry World, January 2010  Back

4   AEA Technology, Defra, Review of the Future Resource Risks Faced by UK Business and an Assessment of Future Viability, January 2011, pp 28-29 Back

5   "Japan protests over Chinese boats near disputed islands", BBC online, 25 October 2010 Back

6   See for example: Oakdene Hollins, Resource Efficiency KTN, Material Security: Ensuring Resource Availability for the UK Economy, March 2008, p 8. Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 17 May 2011