Smartphones, domestic appliances, solar panels. But also drones, magnets in wind farms, batteries and accumulators for cars, and other electrical and electronic devices. These are all objects that - directly or indirectly - are part of our daily lives, and they all have one thing in common. To function, they need components that contain metals and minerals such as tungsten, which allows phones to vibrate, gallium and indium, which are vital to LED lamps, and the most famous of all, silicon, used in computer processors.
Many of these are defined as “critical raw materials” because they play a key role in the economy and industrial production, a role that is destined to grow even more in the wake of the ecological transition and the move away from fossil fuels. Furthermore, their supply chain is subject to strategic risks, due mainly to the fact that they are mostly extracted in non-European countries, often in problematic social conditions (e.g. exploitation of workers, underage labour) and using methods with a high environmental impact.
Europe’s critical raw materials list
The Action Plan for Critical Raw Materials drafted by the European Commission and announced on Thursday, 3rd September aims to address the above issues. The announcement was accompanied by an update to the Community’s list of CRMs and a more in-depth study (https://ec.europa.eu/docsroom/documents/42881) that examines the prospects for the role of CRMs in new technologies ad strategic industrial sectors between 2030 and 2050.
The new list - updated based on data from the last five years relating to the economic and industrial importance of materials and critical issues within their supply chain - contains thirty raw materials. The first version, published nine years ago, contained only 14. In addition to metals such as cobalt and tungsten and so-called ‘rare earth’ elements (https://www.renewablematter.eu/articoli/article/terre-rare-le-vitamine-dellindustria-moderna), bauxite and lithium were listed for the first time. The latter is a key component for batteries in electronic devices and electric vehicles.
The idea that access to raw materials is a “strategic security question” for European ambitions to carry out the Green New Deal is the Action Plan’s starting point. In its introduction, the plan warns of the risk that “Europe’s transition to climate neutrality” could replace the EU economy’s current dependence on fossil fuels with one “on raw materials, many of which are sourced from abroad and for which global competition is becoming more fierce”.
“If we want to keep benefitting in the long run from modern products”, stated Vice-President of the European Commission for Interinstitutional Relations Maroš Šefčovič when presenting the document (https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/SPEECH_20_1558), “we have to drastically change our approach to critical raw materials, and ensure a secure and sustainable supply of raw materials to meet the needs of the clean and digital technologies”. These needs will continue to increase in the coming years: by 2050, the Slovak commissioner explained, “Europe will need almost 60 times more lithium and 15 times more cobalt for electric cars and energy storage alone. Demand for rare earths used in permanent magnets, critical for products like wind generators, could increase ten-fold in the same period”. Add to this the fact that the EU “is highly dependent on a limited number of non-EU countries for its raw materials: for instance, we get between 75% and 100% of most metals from outside the EU, while China provides 98% of our supply of rare earth”.
Courtesy of European Commission report on the 2020 criticality assessment
The European Commission’s plan
Hence, the four goals set out by the Action Plan: “develop resilient value chains for EU industrial ecosystems; reduce dependency on primary critical raw materials through circular use of resources, sustainable products and innovation; strengthen domestic sourcing of raw materials in the EU; diversify sourcing from third countries and remove distortions to international trade, fully respecting the EU's international obligations”.
These goals should be pursued - the document continues - by forging a European Raw Materials Alliance that will be open to “all relevant stakeholders”. The Alliance will focus on “increasing EU resilience in the rare earth elements and magnets value chain, as this is vital to most EU industrial ecosystems (including renewable energy, defence and space)”. The Alliance will also “develop strategic international partnerships and associated funding to secure a diversified supply of sustainable critical raw materials” that are not present in Europe. Additionally, the Commission will “map the potential supply of secondary critical raw materials from EU stocks and wastes by 2022 – a precondition for future policy development and concrete recovery and recycling projects”. In fact, as Šefčovič explained, “every year, 9 million tonnes of waste electrical and electronic equipment is generated in the EU. Around 30% is collected and recycled. But the recovery of the critical raw materials from this e-waste stands below 1%. Exploiting these urban mines – that is, recovering raw materials from urban waste through recycling – could eventually satisfy a large share of the EU's demand for critical raw materials”.
Courtesy of European Commission
A double-edged sword
One final point set forth by the Plan - and it is perhaps the most critical - involves identifying “mining and processing projects in the EU that can be operational by 2025”, with special focus “on on coal-mining regions and other regions in transition, with special attention to expertise and skills relevant for mining, extraction and processing of raw materials”. Four industrial initiatives for mining and sustainable processing, worth almost 2 billion euro, are already active. The Commission estimates that, by 2025, they will fulfil 80% of the Community’s demand for lithium in the battery sector (Chile currently provides 78%).
“A number of raw materials are essential for Europe to lead the green and digital transition and remain the world's first industrial continent”, said Thierry Breton, Commissioner for the Internal Market. “We cannot afford to rely entirely on third countries – for some rare earths even on just one country. By diversifying the supply from third countries and developing the EU's own capacity for extraction, processing, recycling, refining and separation of rare earths, we can become more resilient and sustainable. Implementing the actions that we propose today will require a concerted effort by industry, civil society, regions and Member States”.
The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), however, warns that there is a risk that the strategy could turn out to be a “double-edged sword”, especially considering the social and environmental costs of mining. First among these is the pollution of groundwater and reduced reservoir capacity. “By relocating mining to Europe, we are likely to also import the environmental damage that has been inflicted on communities in South America, Asia and Africa for decades”, stated Diego Francesco Marin, a project officer for environmental justice at the EEB. “The European Commission must ensure that local communities and civil society groups become part of a comprehensive consultation process so that they can raise concerns about new mining projects near their homes before it’s too late”.
These worries were reiterated by another member of the Bureau, Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, who said that “simply opening the flood gates to new mining projects in Europe would contradict the European Commission’s ambition to keep resource consumption within the limits of the planet, as set out in the circular economy action plan in March. What we need is more efficient, recyclable and durable batteries produced from responsibly sourced materials to alleviate the burden on the planet”.
Photo: The Chemetall Foote Lithium Operation, Clayton Valley, Nevada.