The EU is creating a sustainability label for raw materials

The mining industry is wary of a labelling system, saying Europe already has the most stringent standards for mining in the world. [Shutterstock]

An EU research group is creating a certification method for raw materials, to be completed by 2021. The project is part of a push to sustainably mine the metals needed for Europe’s clean energy transition. But critics say certification is not the answer.

There are certification schemes for textiles, food and sustainable timber, “so why not for other raw materials such as the metals we need to make batteries,” asks Dr Andreas Hucke, expert on transparency for CERA, a new certification method for raw materials.

The project aims to investigate a raw material all along its production chain – from prospecting, to mining, refining and manufacturing.

“We want to show that each step of the value chain is carried out in a socially, environmentally and economically responsible way,” says Lukas Förster, a mining engineer on the project.

Like other certifications such as Fairtrade, the vision is to have a final stamp on an end product. “That’s our goal,” says Förster. “We want consumers to be able to directly see the difference between products that are certified and those that aren’t.”

The project is funded by EIT Raw Materials, one of the eight research and innovation communities launched by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), an EU research body.

The standard is being completed in four parts. The first part, called “performance standard,” was launched earlier this year and deals specifically with the mining portion of supply chains.

The entire method is due to be completed by 2021, when the EIT Raw Materials funding period comes to an end.

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Volkswagen providing advice

The Institute’s projects typically combine academia and industry. In this case, the certification project is co-lead by mining consulting giant DMT and advised by industrial players such as Volkswagen AG and Fairphone.

“In the energy sector, people are happy to pay more for something that has been sustainably sourced,” says Patrick Nadoll, senior advisor in exploration and resources at EIT Raw Materials. “A certification scheme could give people reassurance that the metals in their phone, laptop or EV was mined and made responsibly,” he adds.

It is likely the scheme will start with European mines. As an EIT project, there are “strong contacts” for the project to start certifying within the EU first, says Förster. It is being developed amid the EU’s drive to increase minerals mining in Europe, particularly for battery metals used in electric technologies.

But the mining industry is wary of a labelling system. “Europe already has the most stringent standards for mining in the world, so why would we need certification on top of that?” says Johannes Drielsma, deputy director of Euromines, the largest lobby group for European metals and mining.

“No certificate can replace building a strong relationship with a host community,” Drielsma says, although he believes it could be useful if it adds value to raw materials produced in Europe, or if it helps improve public perception and allows new mines to open.

Peter Handley, head of the raw materials unit at the European Commission, talked up the new scheme, saying “CERA has all the parts we would want to see in a certification process”.

He believes certification could help mining projects get started in Europe. “At a time when permit issuers are going to be very risk averse so as to avoid criticism from environmental groups, certification would give a mining project more points of reference and show it is meeting standards,” he says.

According to Handley, certification could also improve the social acceptance of mining, “which is the biggest challenge facing European mining projects”. If the public are assured by a process like CERA, “it would mean we could source more of resources like battery metals in Europe instead of overseas,” he argues.

Handley notes, however, that there is “a flood” of new certification schemes in raw materials. “It is not the only one being developed right now,” he says, “and it has to show it can live beyond its funding period”.

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Europe and unethical metals

As Europe imports most of its battery metals, the majority supply chains are international. For this reason, CERA aims to go global. The plans come amid growing scrutiny of how and where metals are sourced overseas.

One of the most controversial examples is cobalt, a vital component in rechargeable batteries whose demand is projected to soar with the transition to electric transport.

At the moment, roughly 65% of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where numerous reports have documented cases of child labour and dangerous working conditions. A report by Amnesty International in 2017 called out the “minimal” efforts by large tech companies and metal smelters to check the conditions of the extraction and processing of cobalt.

Could certification improve conditions on the ground? Amnesty International is sceptical. “‘One of the problems with certification schemes is that they put the responsibility of human rights on the consumer, who will always be influenced by their own cost pressures,” says Nele Meyer, senior executive officer at Amnesty International’s EU office.

“Products that meet human rights and sustainability standards should be the norm, not a niche,” she adds, saying “the European consumer should be able to assume that everything on the market was produced in respect of human rights”.

Some regulation exists. In 2021, a law will come into force for the sourcing of tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold – or ‘3TG’. The EU’s Conflict Minerals Regulation is based on OECD guidance for sourcing minerals from conflict-affected and high-risk areas. It requires companies to prove they are investigating due diligence within their supply chains. The law is restricted, however, to those four metals.

Other metals are covered by the Responsible Raw Materials Initiative (RRMI), an industry-led due diligence process supported by tech giants such as Apple, Microsoft, Samsung and electric car developers Renault, Ford and General Motors.

Critics point out that the RRMI is voluntary and therefore won’t have much effect. “Voluntary schemes are rarely as effective as regulation,” says Meyer, “that’s why our bottom line is for EU legislation that requires that all imports to Europe and further production and business in Europe, is carried out in respect for human rights”.

Newly elected green MEP, Anna Cavazzini, says “we would welcome a certification scheme for sustainability of raw materials – there is a need for it. Ultimately, however, we hope it leads to an expansion of the mandatory regulation, for example, for 3TG to include more minerals and more links in the supply chain,” she says.

“A good opportunity to do that will be when the 3TG comes into its first review in 2023,” Cavazzini says.

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[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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