Africa’s critical minerals could play bigger role in U.S. energy transition

Senior Global Correspondent
Source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace • Authors' calculations from World Bank and other data.

The Biden administration’s new industrial policies to promote clean technology and build manufacturing at home offer African countries new opportunities to boost their economies, balance China’s growing influence on the continent and bolster manufacturers in the United States, according to recent research from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. 

Africa has received unparalleled attention from China over the past two decades. China has turned to the continent to fill an ever-greater share of its critical mineral needs as the Asian economic powerhouse has become the world’s dominant manufacturer of clean energy technologies, from solar panels to batteries to electric vehicles. Meanwhile, U.S. imports from the region have stagnated.

Layered on top of these trends is growing concern over human rights in the region, as articulated by a top African climate leader in this recent Cipher story.

The Carnegie researchers suggest three ways the U.S. could counter this trend by working with African countries.

First, the U.S. could partner with African countries to directly acquire the metals and minerals required for battery manufacturing. The U.S. mines virtually none of the lithium, cobalt, nickel and graphite needed to make electric vehicles. Instead, the U.S. imports from China between half and all of the processed minerals for more than 10 of the 50 minerals the U.S. government designates as critical to the energy transition.

New U.S. incentives under the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act push manufacturers to source minerals domestically or from free trade partner nations, which don’t include African countries. But there are exceptions and additional programs, such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act, can open the door for imports from Africa, the researchers say. Countries that might take advantage of such initiatives include Ghana, Mali, Tanzania, Namibia, Zambia and South Africa.

Second, the report argues African countries, including Morocco, Namibia and South Africa, can boost research and development ties with the U.S. government and industry, especially in areas like the hydrogen industry to help grow their economies and expand energy access.

Finally, African countries could work with U.S. government agencies, such as the U.S. Geological Survey, to better map out where critical minerals exist and how to access them, increasing global supplies.