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Euractiv | 9 December 2022
EU to introduce targets for raw materials self-sufficiency
By Frédéric Simon
The European Commission is considering objectives to increase the EU’s self-sufficiency on key raw materials needed for the green and digital transitions, with targets of up to 30% for some of them, a senior EU official has said.
In September, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced the launch of a Critical Raw Materials Act, with the aim of tackling Europe’s dependency on China when it comes to the metals and minerals that are needed to manufacture everything from wind turbines to electric car batteries and smartphones.
“We must avoid becoming dependent again, as we did with oil and gas,” von der Leyen warned, saying the EU will identify strategic projects all along the supply chain – from extraction to refining, processing and recycling.
The EU executive is now busy drafting legislation expected to be tabled in the first quarter of 2023. And officials say the proposal will contain targets to increase Europe’s self-sufficiency for specific raw materials.
“We have to try and achieve a certain percentage of ability to supply our own demand,” said Peter Handley, a senior official at the Commission’s internal market directorate. “We should be aiming to supply up to 30% of our needs for certain things,” he said at a EURACTIV event last week.
Whether the target is set at 10 or 30% will depend on the materials as well as the stage at which they are in the value chain – whether it’s mining, processing or recycling at the end of life, Handley explained.
Of course, “100% self-sufficiency is not an objective” and it would not be achievable anyway simply because of geological constraints, Handley admitted.
“But we want to set some destination points in our Critical Raw Materials Act to really show that the objective is to increase the level of ability to serve our own needs,” he stressed, saying this will put the EU “in a much stronger position” in relation to supplier nations.
Anna-Michelle Asimakopoulou, a New-York born Greek MEP who is vice-chair of the European Parliament’s committee on international trade, agreed with Handley that 100% self-sufficiency was probably “utopian” and “off the table” for the time being.
Still, “I think we should aim for it anyway,” she said, adding: “If your goals and your dreams aren’t scary, then I think they’re just not big enough”.
Regarding relations with supplier countries, Asimakopoulou pointed to existing EU free-trade deals with Canada, Japan and Vietnam, which contain provisions about raw materials. And there are ongoing talks about including a raw materials chapter in trade agreements with Chile and Australia, Asimakopoulou added.
For other countries, she recommended forging “strategic partnerships”, which are easier to conclude than free-trade agreements. “We’ve seen the strategic partnerships with Ukraine. We had another one with Namibia. Hopefully, we’ll have one with Norway,” she said.
In any case, she said, Europe should be “a lot more aggressive” in protecting its industry. “You know, that’s what the US is doing, that’s what China has been doing forever. And sometimes the best defense is offense. And it’s time for offense.”
The EU has so far classified 30 raw materials as “critical”, depending on their supply risk and economic importance.
But the EU’s supply worries are not just related to exotic metals like rare earths, it also extends to familiar metals like aluminium and copper, which are considered “strategic” because of their pervasiveness.
In its Critical Raw Materials Act, the Commission “will be looking beyond the classic rare earths, scandium type thing” to focus also on other metals that are needed for the green transition, Handley said. “And clearly, copper is going to be necessary for electrification of the global economy,” he added.
The challenge has been identified already years ago. To produce a 3-megawatt wind turbine, manufacturers need 335 tonnes of steel, 4.7 tonnes of copper, 1,200 tonnes of concrete, 3 tonnes of aluminium, 2 tonnes of rare earth elements as well as zinc.
“For me, that is really illustrative of the volume of raw materials you need for the green transition,” Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič said in a 2018 interview with EURACTIV, warning against new dependencies.
It’s not just EU officials or industry representatives who are raising the alarm – environmental groups have also started to realise that the green transition will require greater attention to raw materials.
“Aluminium, copper, steel – all these things are critical,” said Julia Poliscanova, a campaigner at clean mobility NGO Transport & Environment (T&E).
And for her, that also means taking a fresh look at mining opportunities in Europe, by speeding up permitting procedures for high-quality mining projects.
“We have some capacity to extract raw materials in Europe, and we should go for that with high standards and communities on board,” Poliscanova said. And in less developed countries like Africa, European companies could export their know-how to improve mining conditions there, she said.
“We must give support not only to domestic but also to global projects in mining as well as specifically in refining and recycling,” she said, urging Europe to accelerate those projects.
Beyond recycling, greater attention should also be paid to so-called re-mining projects that utilise mining waste as a resource, Poliscanova remarked, saying sites like these are plentiful in places like the Czech Republic.
“In fact, the US has already done that – they’ve already mapped the potential and are going after this. We should do the same in Europe: let’s map it,” she said, calling this “a real business opportunity.”
For aluminium, however, the picture looks bleak, with production in Europe declining steadily over the years.
Today, Europe imports 47% of its primary aluminium, with China now controlling 60% of global production capacity, followed by Russia.
“What we’re looking at now is a massive deindustrialisation in Europe,” warned Paul Voss, director general of European Aluminium, a trade association.
This is despite growing demand for the metal, which is used in electric cars, power cables or solar panels where aluminium makes 85% of the total content.
“There’s 4 million tonnes or so of additional demand for metal that will come just from the clean energy transition,” Voss said, calling on policymakers to think more strategically about raw materials.
Asimakopoulou agreed. “To avoid future crises, we have to be much more strategic in the way we look at critical raw materials, and aluminium is strategic,” she said.