Mining is wreaking havoc – better recovery of battery metals will help

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Protesters are seen during a rally outside the Rio Tinto office in Perth, Australia, on 9 June 2020. Rio Tinto detonated explosives in an area of the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, destroying two ancient deep-time rock shelters, much to the distress of the aboriginal people. [EPA-EFE/RICHARD WAINWRIGHT]

The EU’s proposed new standards for sustainable batteries are an opportunity to move away from destructive mining. The right policy measures can make the system more circular and avoid the mistakes of the past, write Benjamin Hitchcock Auciello and Alex Keynes.

Benjamin Hitchcock Auciello is the coordinator of Earthworks’ Making Clean Energy Clean, Just & Equitable initiative. Alex Keynes is the Clean Vehicles Manager at Transport & Environment.

From the deadly Brumadinho tailings dam collapse in Brazil, which took the lives of nearly 300 people, to the destruction of sacred Aboriginal sites at Juukan Gorge in Australia, mining is wreaking havoc around the world.

Conflict, displacement, pollution, corruption and fatal disasters are increasingly common in the mining sector, threatening countless communities and ecosystems.

Pressure to build more mines is increasing as demand for metals used in electric vehicle batteries and other low-carbon infrastructure, like solar panels and wind turbines, is projected to skyrocket.

The rapid transition to clean energy is essential if we are to head off the worst impacts of climate change, yet we must avoid the mistakes of the past. We cannot replace dirty fossil fuels with dirty mining.

Instead – alongside responsible mining practices founded on informed community consent – we must build a more circular metals economy focused on recycling, reuse, and reduced demand. And we must avoid new mining to the greatest extent possible.

New research shows that this can be done.

The research, prepared by the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures (UTS-ISF) for US-based NGO Earthworks, finds that optimising battery metal recovery could reduce demand for copper, lithium, cobalt and nickel in the EV battery supply chain by 25-55% over the next two decades, and that recovery rates of above 90% are technologically feasible for all four metals.

Though, as battery technology continues to improve and evolve, less raw material will be needed to produce each kWh of an EV battery.

There is, however, a gap between what is technologically possible and what is currently being done. Today’s economic incentives and policy requirements are inadequate to ensure optimal recycling of battery metals.

This is particularly true of lithium, of which, according to the research, only an estimated 12% is being recovered from end-of-life lithium-ion batteries.

The European Union is making significant strides towards meeting this challenge. In December 2020, the European Commission published a proposal for a new regulatory framework covering the lifecycle of batteries.

The proposed regulations, spanning 79 articles, covers the full battery value chain from material extraction to reuse and recycling, with provisions ranging from mandatory due diligence in mineral sourcing to carbon footprint accounting.

But progressive policies will need to go further to mitigate the negative impacts of these vital supply chains. For example, the findings of the UTS-ISFs newly published research demonstrate that the proposed targets of 35% lithium recovery from waste batteries by 2026, and 70% by 2030, do not reflect the recovery capacity of current and emerging recycling processes.

Given these findings, lithium recovery targets should be set at least 70% in 2026 and 90% in 2030.

Beyond the recycling targets, other areas of the proposed regulations require changes and additions to ensure the best possible outcomes for mining-affected communities, workers, and all other parties affected by the supply chains of lithium-ion batteries.

Mining operations must adhere to stringent environmental and human rights standards (such as those developed by the multi-stakeholder Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance) with independent, third-party assurance of compliance.

In an effort to document these gaps, and propose concrete solutions, Brussels-based NGO, Transport and Environment has published a position paper detailing how EU regulators can further improve the proposed legislation and help make ‘made in Europe’ green batteries a reality.

Every effort to reduce demand for newly mined metals will also have a direct, positive impact on people and ecosystems around the world. Our efforts to address the climate crisis must also help us move beyond unsustainable and destructive mining practices.

Europe’s policy makers must not waste this opportunity to put in place a truly circular battery value chain.

Raw materials: the missing link in Europe’s drive for batteries

While Europe is rapidly catching up with China on investments into batteries for electric cars, it is still lagging behind when it comes to securing supplies of the critical raw materials that are needed to produce them.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe