EU unveils action plan to secure access to critical raw materials

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By Alice Tidey
One of the four founders of Geomet company, points at ore containing lithium inside a former mine located at the border with Germany near Cinovec, Czech Republic.
One of the four founders of Geomet company, points at ore containing lithium inside a former mine located at the border with Germany near Cinovec, Czech Republic.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Petr David Josek

The European Commission on Thursday unveiled plans to create domestic supply chains for raw materials, including lithium, seen as critical to the bloc's digital and green transition.

The EU's Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials aims to reduce Europe's dependency on third countries by strengthening domestic sourcing of raw materials in the EU and diversifying supply from both primary and secondary sources.

"A number of raw materials are essential for Europe to lead the green and digital transition and remain the world's first industrial continent," Thierry Breton, Commissioner for Internal Market, said in a statement.

"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," he added.

According to the American Geosciences institutes, rare earth elements (REE) are a set of seventeen metallic elements which include the fifteen lanthanides on the periodic table plus scandium and yttrium.

Environmental protection NGO Friends of the Earth has however criticised the plan as a "desperate plunder for raw materials".

Europe's lithium needs to explode

According to the Action Plan, a European Raw Materials Alliance is to be established in the coming weeks to work out what the bloc's most pressing needs are.

Brussels and member states will work to identify mining and processing projects in the EU that can be operational by 2025.

The Commission also plans to develop strategic international partnerships with third countries, including Canada, countries in Africa and in the bloc's neighbourhood with pilot partnerships to start as of 2021.

The Commission has added several new materials to its Critical Raw Materials list: Lithium, Bauxite, Titanium, and Strontium.

The list, first created in 2011, now contains 30 raw materials that are crucial to the bloc's economy due to their applications in a broad range of goods and modern technologies.

"A secure and sustainable supply of raw materials is a prerequisite for a resilient economy. 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," Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President for Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight

"As our foresight shows, we cannot replace current reliance on fossil fuels with dependency on critical raw materials. This has been magnified by the coronavirus disruptions in our strategic value chains. We will therefore build a strong alliance to collectively shift from high dependency to diversified, sustainable and socially responsible sourcing, circularity and innovation," he went on.

'Interesting opportunities'

Most of the world's supply of lithium is currently produced in Australia, Argentina, Chile and China.

The alkali metal is increasingly used in batteries, including for e-cars and renewable energies because it is highly reactive and rechargeable.

The EU does have lithium mines, mostly in Portugal and eastern Europe, but the metal is then shipped abroad for processing.

A European Battery Alliance, launched in late 2017, plans for 80 per cent of the Old Continent's lithium demand to be supplied by European sources by 2025.

Nickel, cobalt, graphite and manganese could also provide "interesting opportunities" for European companies and regions, the Commission said.

"Many EU battery raw material resources lie in regions that are heavily dependent on coal or carbon-intensive industries and where battery factories are planned."

"Furthermore, many mining wastes are rich in critical raw materials and could be revisited to create new economic activity on existing or former coal-mining sites while improving the environment," it argued.

'Strategic partnerships' or 'toxic new trade deals'?

But other materials are harder to source in Europe "due to the geological limitations of the EU", the Commission stressed, adding that "future demand of primary critical raw materials will continue to be largely met by imports also in the medium to long term".

The bloc thus needs to "engage in strategic partnerships with resource-rich third countries".

Countries with whom the EU plans to build "sustainable and responsible strategic partnerships" include Canada and Australia, several developing countries in Africa and Latin America and countries close to the EU such as Norway, Ukraine and the Western Balkan nations.

Friends of the Earth has however blasted the Commission's plans.

"The EU is embarking on a desperate plunder for raw materials — seemingly at any cost. In the name of a supposedly greener economy, the European Commission's new plans will lead to more extraction beyond ecological limits, more exploitation of communities, and new toxic trade deals" it said in a statement.

"Europe is consuming as we had three planets available, simply switching types of raw materials to meet our business-as-usual economic growth demand will not cut it," it added.