Europe relies on foreign raw materials to power its green and digital future. Now it wants to mine them at home

September 3, 2020, 2:15 PM UTC

The European Union is keen to boost its green and digital ambitions, making them central to its coronavirus recovery plans. But there’s one big problem: raw materials.

Those rare-earth elements needed for the magnets in electric vehicles and wind turbines? Some 98% of the EU’s supply comes from China. South Africa provides 84% of the platinum group metals needed for fuel cells and automotive catalysts. And Europe’s supplies of lithium—critical for battery production and therefore for electric vehicles and renewable-energy storage—come mostly from Chile.

So, on Thursday, the European Commission set out a plan for diversifying its supplies, while also hopefully improving conditions in the mining of these raw materials.

“A secure and sustainable supply of raw materials is a prerequisite for a resilient economy,” said EC Vice President Maroš Šefčovič in a statement. “For e-car batteries and energy storage alone, Europe will for instance need up to 18 times more lithium by 2030 and up to 60 times more by 2050.”

“We cannot afford to rely entirely on third countries—for some rare earths even on just one country,” added Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton. “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.”

A new European Raw Materials Alliance, which will take in industry as well as national governments, civil society, and investors, will first focus on rare earths and other materials needed for magnets, then over time other materials as well.

European mining

Much of the strategy involves striking new deals with Canada and countries in the Balkans to diversify supply. But in some cases, the plan is to start mining in the European Union itself, for battery-related raw materials such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite, and manganese.

Many of these resources lie in what are currently coal-mining regions, which is handy in two respects. First, the mining-waste dumps and landfills in these areas are full of materials that are ripe for retrieval, which provides an extra incentive to clean up the environment there. Second, coal mining is winding down as an activity, and new mines in these regions would give them a much-needed economic boost.

“Many of the mining and engineering skills are transferable to the exploitation of metals and minerals, often in the same regions,” the Commission said in the strategy document published Thursday.

The Commission also pointed out that the EU’s satellite-based earth observation program, Copernicus, could be used to help identify new mining sites and to monitor their environmental performance.

There is also the hope that more of the needed materials can be harvested through recycling. A quarter of the EU’s iron, zinc, and platinum consumption already comes from recycled materials, and the EU’s executive body plans to launch research on how the same principles might be applied to rare earths and other materials.

The Commission has also updated its list of critical raw materials, which is something it does every three years anyway. The list, which is used as a resource in trade negotiations, now runs to 30 materials that for the first time include lithium, titanium, strontium, and bauxite.

Environmental concerns

The addition of lithium is music to the ears of some environmentalists, given its importance in the production of electric-car batteries. “Such products are necessary to help Europe ditch fossil fuels and transition to clean energy,” said the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), the region’s largest network of environmental citizens’ organizations, in a statement.

However, the EEB also called the new strategy a “double-edged sword,” given the environmental and societal costs of the mining itself.

“Simply opening the floodgates to new mining projects in Europe would contradict the European Commission’s ambition to keep resource consumption within planetary boundaries,” said EEB policy officer Jean-Pierre Schweitzer in the statement. “What we need is more efficient, recyclable, and durable batteries produced from responsibly sourced materials to alleviate the burden on the planet.”

Diego Francesco Marin, another of the group’s policy officers, added that it was essential for local communities and civil society groups to be consulted “so that they can raise concerns about new mining projects near their homes before it’s too late.”

Of course, relying on resources from other countries may make for a greener and more socially acceptable situation at home, but it generally just moves the negative impacts of the mining offshore.

In the battery space, lithium mining has been associated with toxic chemical leaks that have contaminated water supplies, while cobalt mining, which takes place largely in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is rife with child labor and unsafe working conditions.

In its Thursday strategy document, the European Commission talked about “supporting improved local governance and dissemination of responsible mining practices” in its partner countries. Here, the meat will supposedly come in the “responsible sourcing” parts of a forthcoming proposal for a batteries law.