Sinkevicius: Batteries are essential to Green Deal ambitions

Virginijus Sinkevičius [Photo: Commission]

This article is part of our special report Chemicals management: What’s at stake.

The European Union has ambitious plans to corner a significant chunk of the global battery market but how does a new strategy aimed at regulating chemicals management affect those objectives? Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius shared his views.

Virginijus Sinkevičius is a Lithuanian politician and is the current European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries.

The Commission will publish its proposal for a review of the battery directive soon: how important is this step in the wider Green Deal picture?

Batteries are essential to gear up the green transition and to deliver the ambition of the European Green Deal. They will be essential on the path to climate neutrality. We need them for communication and digital technologies, and we will need much more of them to power clean electric vehicles and to support our drive towards renewable energy in the whole economy. And, for a green future, we need batteries to be green as well.

The new legislative framework for sustainable batteries will set the ambition level high. It is about a new type of policy that takes an integrated and inclusive approach when it comes to sustainability. The proposal addresses social, market and environmental issues at the same time, targeting the whole value chain of batteries which is one of strategic importance for the EU.

To what extent will this review take into account the new chemical strategy, given the fact that battery production is so closely linked to chemical management?

Batteries face all the challenges that we have to address in striving to reduce our footprint on the environment, resonating with the priorities in the new EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability. Batteries contain many scarce or even critical, but also hazardous raw materials. We want to promote resilient supply of critical materials, while ensuring that restricting certain hazardous substances continues.

The concept of managing chemicals by groups, rather than dealing with substances one-by-one is a key element that will be reflected in the Batteries proposal. Thus, for instance, the proposal contains provisions on the restrictions that could be applied to substances or groups of substances if their use or their presence during the manufacturing of batteries, or during their subsequent life-cycle stages, entails unacceptable risks to human health or the environment.

We will rely on the Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to assess risks and socio-economic aspects therefore ensuring we follow the “one substance one assessment” principle in the Chemicals Strategy. The experience of ECHA in the provision of advice to the Commission will allow us to carefully assess and strike the right balance in terms of human health, environmental protection, and internal market impacts.

That strategy is designed to push firms to innovate so that the materials they use are safe. Is this applicable to the battery industry too?

Indeed,  we would like to set the direction towards a sustainable battery value chain and at the same time stimulate technological development and innovation.This is supported with actions funded under the EU’s research and innovation programme Horizon 2020. The proposal supports the green and digital transition of the EU industry, including the development and deployment of chemicals and materials that are safe and sustainable by design.

As pointed out in the Chemicals Strategy, this innovation will contribute to regaining competitiveness by incorporating new chemical management approaches into the battery value chain.

Batteries often contain hazardous substances, i.e. lead or cobalt, is there a risk that the objective of scaling up Europe’s battery production capacity will be undermined by the new chemical’s strategy?

Few batteries do not contain hazardous substances such as lead or cobalt. Measures are therefore indeed needed to minimise the risks entailed by the use of these chemicals.

The Chemicals Strategy aims to step up the protection of citizens and the environment by minimising the use of chemicals with adverse chronic effects for human health and the environment. It also considers phasing out the most harmful of these substances, in particular in consumer products, unless they are essential for societal use.

In this respect, the use of even these most harmful chemicals should be allowed where it is proven to be essential for society, in particular taking into consideration the needs for achieving the green and digital transition.

In any case, a high level of protection of workers in the battery and chemical industries needs to be guaranteed, above all when substances such as lead and cobalt are used. Also proper waste management has to be ensured.

Will batteries for electric cars be classed as “essential” under this strategy, so that they are allowed to use substances that are hazardous?

The Commission will define criteria for essential use to ensure that the most harmful chemicals are only allowed if their use is necessary for health, safety or is critical for the functioning of society and if there are no alternatives that are acceptable from the standpoint of environment and health.

The Commission is currently starting work on the implementation of the Strategy, and will soon involve all relevant stakeholders in those discussions, through both a high-level roundtable and specific consultations. A first reflection paper on essential use was presented by the Commission at the meeting of the Competent Authorities for REACH and CLP held on 17 November 2020. We will take stock of the input collected and define the process further in the coming weeks.

Industry has long complained that the real problem is the REACH regulation and that those rules need to be strengthened. Do you share those concerns?

As regards the management of chemicals in batteries, the evaluation of the Batteries Directive highlighted the need to move to a risk-based assessment system, similar to the one underlying the development of restrictions in the REACH Regulation. The Commission has taken this suggestion on-board, and the proposal is to follow a similar approach on restricting hazardous substances in batteries. The Commission considers that, in the adoption of these restrictions, the socio-economic impact of the measures should be duly taken into account.

The Commission has announced that the REACH Regulation will be revised in the most targeted possible way, limited to achieving the objectives of the new Chemicals Strategy. Main aspects highlighted by industry in the context of other recent consultations relate to enforceability and the delocalisation of industrial activities outside the EU. These elements will be further analysed in the revision of the REACH regulation.

How will the Commission decide what is “safe and sustainable for design”? Will there be EU-wide criteria?

As indicated by the Chemicals Strategy, regulatory tools need to be exploited to drive and reward the production and use of safe and sustainable chemicals. These regulatory tools can be proposed under REACH – in line with the review of REACH – or under other legislation, such as the Ecolabel Regulation and the Ecodesign and Industrial Emissions Directives.

Another pillar of the battery eco-system is waste management. Old batteries often need to be shipped across internal EU borders to get to recycling facilities. Will the Commission look into amending the rules to make this easier for recyclers? They currently face barriers given the divergences between member state rules.

The proposal will be built around the entire battery life cycle, and will represent a decisive step in favour of the circularity of battery value chains. The Regulation will propose to increase the collection target for waste portable batteries and maintain the current no-losses policy for all other battery types (i.e. all industrial, automotive or electric vehicle batteries should be collected and recycled).

Concerning the shipments of waste batteries and recyclates within the EU, the Commission is currently reviewing the the Waste Shipment Regulation, with the objective of tabling a legislative proposal in 2021. One of the key objectives of that revision is to facilitate the recycling of waste in the EU. It further aims to restrict exports of waste that have harmful environmental and health impacts in third countries or can be better treated domestically within the EU.

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