EU Policy. Why is lithium crucial to the EU's green and digital transition?

Lithium mine in Chile
Lithium mine in Chile Copyright Reinhard Jahn/This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 Germany
Copyright Reinhard Jahn/This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 Germany
By Marta Pacheco
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Lithium is one of the 34 critical raw materials listed by the EU under the Critical Raw Materials Act, and a key component in the EU’s quest to ditch fossil fuels and switch to clean energy.


The Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA), recently adopted by the EU Council, paves the way for the European industry to deliver 10% of extraction, 40% of refining and 15% of recycling of key minerals by 2030. The new law identifies two lists of materials — 34 critical and 17 strategic — that are crucial for the green transition. Lithium is one of a small group of highly significant critical raw materials.

Why Lithium?

Lithium has been classified as a key component in the EU’s quest to ditch fossil fuels and switch to clean energy as the mineral is set to see increased demand for the massive production of batteries needed for electric vehicles and energy storage systems under the EU’s energy transition plan, which pledges to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030, below 1990 levels.

The International Energy Agency estimates that demand for lithium will grow globally 42-fold by 2040 compared to last year.

“It's mainly the cars, the buses and the the trucks in the future that will eat up all the lithium,” Peter Tom Jones, director at KU Leuven Institute for Sustainable Metals & Minerals told Euronews.

An exceptionally light mineral, lithium plays a crucial role in facilitating the green and digital transition by providing a means to store and utilise clean energy efficiently in both stationary and mobile applications. Energy storage plays a crucial role in the climate transition by helping to address the intermittency of renewable energy sources like solar and wind power.

“More and more companies will have renewable electricity production and they will store that in a large stationary battery so that they can use it as a smart system where they either store the electricity or they give the electricity back to the grid,” Jones added.

Mining process

Lithium can be extracted from hard rocks or from (liquid) brines. As regards the lithium brines, scientists make a “clear distinction” between geothermal lithium brines and the so-called salars which are found in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, but not in Europe, where Jones only sees real potential in the hard-rock deposits.

“Trying to recover lithium from geothermal brines is still largely unproven technology, it's not a commercial product,” said Jones.

European industry is mostly looking for lithium hydroxide, which is suitable for the production of lithium-ion batteries together with a cathode material based on nickel, manganese and cobalt — other key raw materials under the CRMA.

Available resources

Processed lithium is primarily imported from Chile (79%), Switzerland (7%), Argentina (6%), the US (5%), and the remainder from China, Andreas Bittner, executive director of European Lithium Institute, told Euronews, noting the EU is currently importing 81% of extracted lithium and 100% of processed lithium.

While this raw material is now exclusively produced outside the EU, 27 deposits have been identified in Europe — in Czechia, Finland, France, Ireland, Germany, Portugal, Serbia, Spain and the UK — and around ten of those have a realistic scenario of exploitation, the largest being the Jadar deposit in Serbia, according to Jones.

Taking into account current and feasible development of these ten sites, geologist Wouter Heijlen believes that — by 2030 — EU self-sufficiency for lithium from mines could reach 50% of the bloc’s demand. Deposits vary in depth and are often deep underground. Portugal is the only European country with four open-cast working mines. 

“Only Portugal is currently producing lithium in Europe (except the UK) from hard rock deposits, while the largest resources are accounted in Germany,” said Bittner, though the mined lithium is currently only used for ceramics rather than batteries.


Despite the EU’s CRMA speeding up permits for extraction and refining, mining processes entail infamous challenging red tape for permits and construction. Other issues may delay lithium projects in Europe. Social acceptance, for example, has been a challenge in Portugal and Serbia.

A recent scientific study of lithium projects under development in four countries published by Material Proceedings, claimed that the Portuguese open pit mine Mina do Barroso project, owned by Savannah Resources, was the only business venture facing strong opposition by the local population. Ongoing projects in France, Finland and in the UK “seem to be favoured by the local population, as no signs of controversies or disputes have been reported”.

Whether projects are green-field or brown-field may play a key role, since locals living in the latter are accustomed to a history of mining, where the entire economy is dependent on mining projects. Green-field projects face increased opposition due to the absence of mines in the area before.

“The biggest issue I see, especially for arid regions like Portugal and Spain, is the water consumption,” said Jones, adding he is involved in two EU-funded lithium projects focusing on how to reduce water consumption levels by 90% when compared to benchmark approaches.

Another uncertainty about lithium is the potential breakthrough of sodium ions batteries, which could replace lithium demand in the long-term. “The big advantage is that you would not have to mine large volumes of critical metals, such as lithium and cobalt, which is a critical metal, whereas sodium is very abundant and it can be extracted from the sea,” said Jones, noting this scenario remains “extremely uncertain”.


The feasibility of having all the projects in the pipeline coming to fruition by 2030 is another “big question mark” which could hamper the EU goals.

What is the EU doing to secure it?

Several trade partnerships have been forged by the EU with countries that either have lithium production or identified reserves with projects in the pipeline. These include Argentina, Canada, Chile, Democratic Republic of Congo, Greenland, Namibia, Norway, Rwanda and Uzbekistan. The bloc also reinforced transatlantic cooperation on critical raw materials by forging a partnership with the US last month with a view to “diversifying global critical minerals supply chains”.

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