The study by the Joint Research Centre says supply shortfalls of component metals in the next two decades risk the production of solar, wind and nuclear technologies as well as electric vehicles and carbon-capture systems.
“This adds more evidence to the fact that Europe has to look within itself … and more toward waste management, to re-use existing metals,” said Dr. Raymond Moss, lead author of the report.
The findings could have serious implications for the EU’s “Roadmap for moving to a low-carbon economy in 2050” that hinges on development of renewable energy, cleaner transport as well as modernising and integrating Europe’s electricity grids.
Such ambitions depend heavily on the availability of neodymium, dysprosium, indium, tellurium and gallium, metals that are in demand globally.
EU’s vital raw materials
The Commission has already identified many so-called rare-earth minerals as well as metals like cobalt in its lists of 14 economically vital raw materials that are prone to supply disruption. The JRC study is part of the Commission’s examination of raw material needs.
Europe depends on imports for nearly all of its rare-earth metals. Though many are in abundant supply on the planet, the metals are dispersed or difficult to access, and despite their importance to green energy, require intensive mining and processing. China controls more than 90% of the market.
In July, the World Trade Organisation called on China to ease its export restrictions on 17 rare-earth metals important to energy, transport and electronics manufacturing.
Shortages or limitations on supply would have serious impact on many industries. But with solar and wind power expected to account for the biggest energy growth markets over the next 20 years, the impact on alternative energy could be profound.
The JRC report says five metals - dysprosium, neodymium, tellurium, gallium, and indium - are at the highest risk of supply “bottlenecks” from high demand, concentration of supply and “high political risks due to an extreme concentration of supply in China.” The study examines 14 rare-earth metals.
Solar energy technologies, for example, will require half the current world supply of tellurium and 25% of the supply of indium, the report says. Europe’s wind energy technology will require about 4% of the supply of both neodymium and dysprosium.
“While the percent might be small, it could have a significant effect on wind technology,” Moss told EurActiv. The concern, he said is that “90 percent of the source is in China at the moment, and they themselves have a rapidly growing demand for the same metals whilst they have also limited restrictions on export.”
Need for recycling, alternatives cited
The report says policymakers should consider reopening European mines where rare metals are available, and it calls for recycling and substitution of metals with more common materials.
Friends of the Earth Europe, an environmental group, recently called on European governments to step up recycling and reuse to tame consumption of raw materials and naturals resources that the group argues have environmental impacts on developing country producers.
The organisation contends in a recent report that the consumption of water, metals, minerals, fossil fuels and biomass for in manufactured products “has reached alarming levels. This is jeopardising the sustainable functioning of our ecosystems and the services they provide. Strategies for making resource use more sustainable are urgently needed.”
Ariadna Rodrigo, a natural resource campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, told EurActiv that the EU and national government need to adopt measuring systems that track how much water, fuels, land and raw materials go into finished products imported into the 27-nation bloc.
She said monitoring would help guide trade and environmental policies, and help consumers understand the ecological impact of their purchases.