Our great-grandparents barely used a dozen different metals. Today, household objects contain virtually the entire periodic table. Mineral raw materials are vital to the functioning of a modern economy, in particular where deploying new technologies is concerned. The prices for some metals have experienced meteoric rises in recent years, and competition is fierce for access to resources. As a matter of fact, what do we know about these resources exactly?
Among critical mineral resources, rare earth metals occupy a special place because they are part of the core of many future technologies: electric cars, smartphones, wind turbines. Resources are now concentrated in the hands of a few players. Can this situation be reversed? What are the risks entailed for industrial sectors downstream of production?
In the United States and in Europe, hydraulic fracturing is one of the most controverted aspects of the shale gas debate. The dialogue of the deaf around the impacts on the environment generates many overstatements from both camps. The arguments put forward by the two sides deserve attention, but one would be wrong to stay stuck there: research is already in motion and new techniques are emerging.
The global market for commodities has profoundly evolved over the last ten years. The dynamics between large producers and consumers have shifted and new factors have been added to an already complex equation. Within this context, both governments and large industrial firms are being forced to rapidly redefine their current strategies with some moving more swiftly than others.
The European energy equation is defined by three constraints: security of supply, fighting against climate change, competitiveness. It is complicated with the German choice on nuclear power, the arrival of shale gas, the rise of renewable energy, the impact of large emerging countries on the energy markets. What does it change for Europe and its industrial heavyweights?
In 2009, Poland set out to produce shale gas and oil. This choice has taken in consideration the economic outlook, but also sensitive issues like energetic independence and exiting an all-coal powered policy. The Polish experience has thus embarked in a particular situation. Can it serve as a role model for other countries?
The growth in unconventional hydrocarbons has passed from adolescence and is approaching an age of maturity. Yet, optimism must be offset the concerns for those living closest to the revolution. Glancing back over the North American and Australian experiences some preliminary conclusions can be drawn. While best practices are making a contribution to sustainable production the equation will remain incomplete without fearless public debate of the subject.
To build a sustainable economy, consuming fewer natural resources, we need to think in terms of growth, not otherwise. The issue of sustainability should be tackled in a dynamic way. By setting a new model for the lifecycle of materials, we can project what the future's economic model could look like.
The spectacular boom in both production and consumption of unconventional gas in the United States is a success story that few would have predicted at the dawn of the new millennium. Large oil companies are fighting to make up for this missed opportunity. Through mergers and acquisitions they have made the sector a key component of corporate strategy. The stakes could not be higher and decisions made now will have huge consequences for the future balance of the global energy industry.
"Are we entering a golden age of gas?" The question was posed in the latest IEA report and if the experts are to be believed the response is firmly positive. They have made predictions of a bright future based largely on the emergence of unconventional natural gas. The United States has witnessed a gold rush more commonly associated with the nation's frontier past, one that is raising some serious concerns for the environment.
China's decision in 2010 to limit production and exportation of the rare earth metals on which a number of industries rely set off alarm bells among the country's trading partners. This was particularly true for the chemicals industry. The President of Rhodia Group's Rare Earth Systems took time to comment on the current situation with ParisTech Review in Spring 2011.
As recently as mid-February copper prices hit an all time high of $10,157 a metric ton on the London Metal Exchange. While the market has cooled off in the intervening months the spike set off alarm bells for decision makers in government and business on how to approach overheated commodities and energy markets. Should the current climate be viewed as a passing anomaly or a permanent reality? Just how real is the threat of a shortfall?
Contrary to widely held belief there is arable land that could be cultivated without risking further encroachment on our forests. Impetus for developing the potential has been provided by climate change. What is at stake is how to resolve tensions that will arise as competing demands are made on land resources. These will arrive from many directions not always related to satisfying demand for food and include non-food, environmental, recreational, forestry, and urban needs.
The failure of the Copenhagen climate change summit to formulate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol has cancelled hopes for the foreseeable future for any enforceable regulatory framework to deal with the global warming issue worldwide. Commentators have pointed the reticence of emerging economies along with recalcitrance of the US administration and the lobbying of powerful industrial interests. In Europe, Tax commissioner Semeta's proposal for a future EU carbon tax was placed on the backburner due to uncertainties on its economic effects. Observers have thus been left with three overriding questions: Where are we in the theoretical debate? What could be the next steps in the development of a low carbon fiscal model? What will be the economic impact of any future changes?
The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig has dealt a heavy blow to BP. Finding its very integrity and sustainability threatened, the company witnessed its stock market value plummet. Today, its shares are worth about half of what they were before the disaster. However, the heavy penalty that BP will have to face could paradoxically have a positive impact. By highlighting the financial risks of inadequate management of environmental hazards, it could make investors more aware of the environmental factor. And, it could push governments to adopt measures reminding investors of their obligations, if required.
As bad as the BP blowout was, it could have been worse. In some ways, the disaster at the Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was well placed: it happened "only" 66 kilometers from shore and "only" 1,500 meters above the seabed - and it threatened one of the richest and best-insured countries in the world, guaranteeing a mammoth media, industry, and government response. With oil drillers moving into ever deeper and more remote waters -and arguably farther away from regulators- could future spills be even more devastating?
Within the decade, many solar power experts believe that the cost of solar power per watt will reach parity with the cost of ordinary power generation. Already, in the past five years, the cost has dropped sharply, from more than five euros per watt to less than two. For humanity, this is undoubtedly good news. But beyond the raw technology, experts say that many complications lie ahead.