Raw materials: The foundation of a prosperous European future

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In order to build a future that is truly 'Made in Europe', we need a lasting policy for the age of the revival in raw materials, writes Roman Stiftner. [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report The global race for raw materials.

Forming the basis of our cities, digitalisation and the European energy transition, raw materials are essential components in manufacturing the products of the future, writes Roman Stiftner. With the emergence of new demand, now is the right time for stakeholders to come together and respond to this challenge, he argues.

Roman Stiftner is Secretary General of the European Mineral Resources Confederation EUMICON.

Autonomous driving, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, the clean energy transition: the disruptive technological revolution, as well as the expansion of renewable energy use and mitigation of carbon dioxide emissions, require a whole range of new processes, products and innovative services.

All of these have a significant impact on the extractive industry and its value chains, resulting in the need for industry to respond to the new challenges. At the same time, such challenges give rise to unforeseen opportunities and potential new value chains. Raw materials form the basis for modern industrial societies, such as in Europe. Any change in the raw material base has a cascade effect on the continent’s industrial value chains.

Greater political focus on EU industry in recent years is connected with a broad range of issues arising from newly-evolving value chains and rising demand for raw materials. These include, for example, access to and costs of raw materials, product and process innovation, investment, skills, education and training, and regional and social implications.

Transformative megatrends are driving demand for raw materials

Some speak of a new age for metals and minerals. The resource intensity of our society is set to remain high, while increasing quantities of minerals in particular – some of which have been identified as critical raw materials – will be required to enable the transformation to a low-carbon economy.

It would be difficult to identify a production process that is not based on mineral raw materials, or for which tools and machinery requiring mineral raw materials are not used. Therefore, it is clear that demand for mineral raw materials will continue to grow.

At the same time, the EU’s 2050 decarbonisation goals need breakthrough innovation to bring about low-carbon industrial production, and they require European manufacturers to go beyond their existing high standards.

A key challenge is energy consumption and meeting the necessary demands on decarbonised electricity supplies. Renewable energy generation itself will require greater quantities of different raw materials than those used today, as renewables replace traditional energy commodities.

A holistic approach to the circular economy

A circular economy certainly has the potential to deliver innovative solutions. However, though many metals are permanent materials, meaning they can be recycled almost endlessly, increasing demand will not be fed by recycling only – even at the highest rate – and primary raw materials production will always remain necessary to fill the demand gap.

Additionally, there will always be mineral raw materials that cannot be recycled, either because they are consumed in industrial or consumer use, or because processing results in them becoming an integral, inseparable part of a product.

In other cases, including uses of rare earth elements, materials are difficult to recover and recycle because they are only present in products in very small quantities. But frequently it is precisely these minerals that are essential to the new green materials, products and technologies society is demanding.

Another reason why recycling alone cannot supply the market is that as long as products are in use, they cannot be recycled. So primary production is required to meet demand. The only viable solution is a combined approach: fostering a circular economy while emphasising the importance of keeping raw material value chains in Europe.

Collaborating on a future ‘Made in Europe’

The increased demand for mineral raw materials has raised concerns regarding security of supply – i.e. the availability and cost – of such materials. In times of increased international instability and uncertainty, a new global race for raw materials is emerging. In order to be able to build a future that is truly Made in Europe, we will inevitably need a lasting raw materials policy for the age of the revival in raw materials.

2019 will bring the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, elections to the European Parliament, and new political leadership of the European Commission. At the same time, megatrends such as the digital transformation, the transition to a low-carbon economy and the new consumer society will continue to change the continent.

Now is the right time to look at how stakeholders can come together to respond to this change in demand. Focused debate and innovation transfer expertise will be necessary to establish continuous dialogue between stakeholders along raw material value chains, in civil society and in academia.

More than ever, the world needs a strong, self-confident and united Europe as a driver of stability and prosperity. EUMICON therefore invites all stakeholders to work together to build a future that is ‘Made in Europe’.

The European Mineral Resources Confederation EUMICON is a platform for strategic discussion processes and technology transfer focused on mineral resources. The platform creates links between public entities and institutions, domestic and international interest groups, the mineral resources industry, and science and research. EUMICON addresses topics along the entire mineral resources value chain, from extraction, to treatment and refinement, to use in processing and production, all the way to recycling. EUMICON regards sustainable life-cycle management and the responsible use of resources and energy as key priorities.

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