Over almost 10 years now, the economic growth of China and a number of other emergent countries that are heavy consumers of raw materials has led to a spectacular rise in the demand for minerals and, particularly, for metals. If we add to this the needs of the developed countries for various “small metals” in great demand in the high-tech industries, we are entitled to wonder about the state of stocks of mineral raw materials in the world and the production capacities that exist to satisfy this growing demand.
In this article Jacques Varet offers an overall assessment of global mineral resources. He begins by recalling the growth of demand and the limits that exist in terms of production and environmental impact, stressing, as he does so, the various geological and economic notions relating to these mineral resources and their reserves. He goes on to highlight the diversity of this demand (its origins, intensity and enduring nature) and the corresponding supply, particularly where so-called “critical” resources are concerned. He then turns to the question of whether that demand can be sustainably met (this involves two case studies, on copper and rare earths) and points up the crucial role of China with regard to many strategic ores. In his view, future prospects where mineral resources are concerned are not so much characterized by the physical limits on these resources as by the failings of public – national or multilateral – policies in this field: lack of investment in human resources, concentration of research on some resources to the detriment of others, absence of a European medium/long-term vision with regard to supply etc. If we add in the fact that human knowledge in the field of geology is very fragmented and very rarely shared, it is a fair bet that the mineral resources are present on our planet in sufficient quantities. Admittedly, demand will not weaken and the resources concerned are for the moment very unequally distributed, but if the companies and states concerned commit investment commensurate with the needs and with the strategic character of this sector, the requisite supply should follow.