No green and digital transition without raw materials, EU warns

Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for Internal Market, travelled to Olen, Belgium, where he visited two industrial plants, namely, Aurubis, a multimetal and copper recycling and production facility, and Umicore, an electro-optic materials production facility and batteries research centre [Bogdan Hoyaux / EC Audiovisual Service]

Europe’s transition to a sustainable and digital society is only possible with a strategic approach to the raw materials needed to manufacture chips, electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies, the EU’s internal market Commissioner Thierry Breton said on Monday (25 April).

“Without a more strategic approach to developing primary and secondary raw materials capacities in Europe, there will be no green and digital transition, no technological leadership and no resilience,” said Breton, who is in charge of the internal market.

The COVID-19 pandemic, invasion of Ukraine and energy crisis, have shown that Europe’s supply of materials needed for its green and digital transition are not secure.

According to Breton, this needs to be tackled because raw materials are a pillar of Europe’s resilience.

“That is why we are pursuing an ambitious agenda in the area of raw materials, based on more circularity, exploring sustainable domestic production, and of course, continuing to diversify our supplies through strategic partnerships with reliable partners across the globe who share our environmental and social standards,” he added.

Europe will see a huge increase in raw material use in order to meet its climate goals, according to a study by Belgium’s Katholieke Universiteit, presented on Monday.

For instance, Europe will need 3,500% more lithium and 330% more cobalt, according to the study, which was commissioned by Eurometaux, an industry group representing non-ferrous metals producers and recyclers.

According to the research, Europe’s plans for producing clean energy technologies will require huge amounts of raw materials every year by 2050:

  • 5 million tonnes of aluminium (an increase of 33% on top of today’s use)
  • 5 million tonnes of copper (35%)
  • 800,000 tonnes of lithium (3,500%)
  • 400,000 tonnes of nickel (100%)
  • 300,000 tonnes of zinc (10-15%)
  • 200,000 tonnes of silicon (45%)
  • 60,000 tonnes of cobalt (330%)

The study clearly shows the incredible supply gap the EU faces in securing the raw materials needed to achieve its climate goals, according to Colin Mackey, the managing director of European Operations at Rio Tinto mining company.

“They are an essential ingredient for the energy transition, to achieve Europe’s ambitious climate change targets, but also in the longer term, success of European industry,” he told EURACTIV.

“New sustainable mining projects require significant investment and Europe must act now if it wants to secure access to these materials in an increasingly competitive global market place,” he added.

New EU alliance aims for 'strategic autonomy' on key raw materials

The European Commission launched a new industry alliance on Tuesday (30 September) aimed at strengthening the EU’s “strategic autonomy” on raw materials like rare earths, which are considered key for the bloc’s green and digital transitions.

Critical raw materials act

At the moment, coal-powered Chinese and Indonesian metal production dominate the refining of battery metals and rare earths found in magnets used in wind turbines and electric batteries.

Meanwhile, the EU relies on Russia for its supply of aluminium, nickel and copper, which has already created problems for the industry.

The European Commission has monitored the EU’s raw material supply for over a decade. But it didn’t anticipate that “a large chunk of the world that provided us up to today, which is China and Russia, would no longer be providing,” said Kerstin Jorna, the director general, of the Commission’s industry and internal market department (DG Grow).

Now, Europe needs a holistic policy for raw materials, she said. Key areas would include derisking project pipelines and looking at Europe’s domestic supply, refining and recycling capabilities.

It also includes mapping supply and demand and pivoting away from China and Russia to partner with other countries, such as Ukraine, Serbia and Canada.

The EU is currently looking at the best way to tackle issues in critical raw material supply, including a possible legislative act.

If the raw materials act were to materialise, it would need to have a focus on sustainability, said Julia Poliscanova, senior director at the clean mobility NGO Transport and Environment (T&E).

“The fundamental, ambitious environmental and social due diligence must be there,” Poliscanova said. “Yes, we have the new [due diligence] proposal now, but it excludes a lot of mining projects anyway and it doesn’t have any meaningful way to deal with environmental impact as it’s drafted at the moment,”  Poliscanova added.

Concerns over security of supply

In 2021, the International Energy Agency warned about an upcoming supply challenge for the materials most needed to tackle climate change. The KUL report echoes this, warning of global supply shortages in crucial metals, like lithium, cobalt, nickel, rare earths and copper.

The global rush to secure raw materials will be even more pronounced if economies like the EU speed up their energy transition, something currently being considered in response to the war in Ukraine.

“Europe needs to decide urgently how it will bridge its looming supply gap for primary metals. Without a decisive strategy, it risks new dependencies on unsustainable suppliers,” said Liesbet Gregoir, the lead author of the report.

Her study outlines five key areas that need to be addressed to reach sustainable clean energy production by 2050. The first three focus on increasing mining and refining capacity within the EU and diversifying Europe’s external supply.

There is a theoretical potential for new domestic mines to cover between 5 and 55% of Europe’s 2030 needs, with projects already in the pipeline for lithium and rare earths, according to the study.

But although this would create jobs, particularly in regions transitioning away from coal mining, opening new mines will require a change in mindset in Europe.

“On the mining side, we need to make it more attractive for investors to invest in mining,” Gregoir told EURACTIV. “Permitting procedures take a long time. So we need to find a way to get public support by getting transparency and trust that mining is needed. It has an impact, but the effects can be managed.”

Meanwhile, issues in Europe’s already-existing metals production also need to be tackled. Refining is a highly energy-intensive practice and, as a result of high energy costs, silicon, zinc and aluminium production have been under pressure, with 10% of the aluminium industry temporarily closed and 40% of the zinc industry also shut down.

Mining industry warns against Europe’s drive for raw material ‘autonomy’

Relying solely on raw materials sourced within Europe could incentivise the use of cheaper, non-recyclable batteries, increasing the need to mine virgin materials to power electric vehicles, industry has said.

Recycling

The other areas mentioned in the study focus on the period after 2035-2040 when recycling is expected to play a key role in ensuring Europe has a sufficient supply of raw materials.

According to the study, Europe’s primary metals demand will peak around 2040 and, by 2050, 40-75% of Europe’s clean energy metal needs could be met through local recycling if Europe invests heavily now and fixes bottlenecks.

“Recycling is a long term opportunity to improve EU metals and raw materials resilience. The use of secondary raw materials has increased over the years. For instance, more than 50% of metals such as iron, zinc or platinum, are recycled,” said Breton.

But more innovation is needed to ensure that other raw materials can be recycled and, without the suggested measures in place, Gregoir warns that the EU risks missing out on the availability of raw materials and could have little say in the sustainability of production and the diversity of its supply chain.

Let us not replace one dependence with another

The soaring price of rare metals could become a crisis on a par with energy costs if political leaders do not take action now, writes Zakia Khattabi.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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