Five key challenges ahead for EU leaders in raw materials

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

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Photo credit: BHP

The new European Union mandate comes at a critical time for climate change. Decisions taken in the coming years will have a profound impact on Europe’s ability to become a climate-neutral economy. The European Copper Institute (ECI) is actively engaged in working with policymakers to enable such a transition. Below we outline what we see as the five key challenges ahead.

1: Decarbonisation: A Green New Deal for Europe

The European Commission has committed to publishing a Green New Deal within its first 100 days. This package should particularly focus on the decarbonisation of the European economy.

If we are to head toward a climate-neutral economy, we will need more renewables and more sustainable transportation such as electric vehicles (EVs). Copper is the foundation of a low-carbon value chain andis a key resource for these technologies that we rely on to decarbonise. For example,copper is found in most renewable energy sources and is among the best conductors of electricity. Furthermore, compared to fossil-fuel dependent vehicles, battery EVs use between two-to-four times as much copper, which is also a key component in the EV charging infrastructure.

An ambitious Green New Deal, as well as the full implementation of the Clean Energy Package across all Member States, will be vital to support a greater uptake in renewables and EVs, and to ensure the EU meets its climate goals.

2: Circular Economy 2.0 Package

We welcome the work of the Commission on circular economy, which will continue to be at the top of the regulatory agenda with a follow up to the first circular economy package foreseen under the new mandate.Making the economy more circular is a big challenge as there are still barriers and trade offs needing to be addressed by policymakers.

As noted above, copper will be a key component in a decarbonised economy and its contribution to a circular economy, the metals ecosystem and hence essential EU value chains will be vital. The lifecycle of copper is already circular as it can be infinitely recycled without losing its properties. More than 30 percent of annual copper use in the past decade globally came from recycled sources, and in Europe, copper recycling rates are as high as 50 percent.

Looking at the full picture is necessary to ensure a balanced, and global approach, taking into account circular economy, chemical and climate policies. Any new legislation to reach Europe’s circular economy goals should reflect this while not hindering the competitiveness of the European economy.

3: Product Policy

Product policies are another integral part of the EU circular economy strategy. While the previous European Commission started important initiatives in this field, more work still needs to be done.

The Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) is one example of the Commission moving forward. PEF is a methodology developed to accurately calculate the environment footprint of products. ECI, along with other stakeholders, was actively engaged in the Commission’s ‘Environmental Footprint Pilot Phase’, noting that some more work is needed, particularly regarding knowledge gaps and model shortcomings resulting in data inaccuracies. Additionally, a harmonised approach to lifecycle assessment is required to ensure ‘green’ claims are made transparently and comparably by companies.

PEF is just one of many ways that product policy can be addressed by the Commission in the coming years. We look forward to being an active stakeholder in this area, particularly in the PEF transition phase.

4: Sustainability in the Construction Sector

In the coming years, sustainability in the construction sector will be another area of focus. Buildings currently account for 40 percent of the EU’s final energy consumption and produce over a third of its greenhouse gases.

One way to make the construction sector more sustainable is through the creation of a market for by-products. For example, by-products of copper production from metals refining and recycling processes, such as iron silicates, could be used in the construction sector as valuable building material components. Using secondary materials is a crucial element of moving to a more circular economy. In the EU alone, it is estimated more than 10 million tonnes of by-products are made every year. However, several Member States have regulatory obstacles in place making it difficult for these by-products to stay in the loop, leading to unnecessary waste.

By-products like iron silicates should be recognised as co-products across the EU, and their use as building material components should be encouraged in safely controlled practices.

5: Responsible sourcing and production

As noted above, copper is a key material for several technologies enabling the transition to a climate-neutral economy. This will lead to a growth in the demand for copper, with research showing it could jump by as much as 50 percent in just the next 20 years. While recycling rates for copper are relatively high, they are not enough on their own to cover this increase in demand. For this, the copper industry will prioritise responsible sourcing and production.

An important process has already started: The Copper Mark is a programme developed by the copper industry to assess the performance of copper mines and refiners. This assessment, based on responsible production criteria, enables informed decisions on material use.

These kinds of voluntary initiatives by industry allow the raw materials sector to become more circular and sustainable, and we look forward to working closely with regulators to ensure a secure and sustainable supply of raw materials.

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