European Commissioners Sefcovic (Vice President) and Breton (Internal Market) have come together in a new strategy to reduce Europe's dependence on imports of materials from abroad. To reinforce this strategy, a European Raw Materials Alliance will be established, a large partnership of more than 100 companies that want to invest in new industry for Europe.

Prof. Karl Vrancken

Research leader sustainable materials management - VITO
Department of Bio-engineering - University of Antwerp

The alliance was officially launched on 29 September. A similar Battery Alliance was set up last year, to ensure that we ourselves can produce the batteries that electric cars have to drive. But now we come to the conclusion that the materials to make those batteries (also) have to come from abroad. Like the mouth masks 3 months ago. Whatever works for mouth masks, should work for cobalt and lithium too, they must have thought. These materials are also found in European soil (in Portugal, Poland or Sweden). But a mine costs more than a mouth mask factory and it takes longer to open it. And didn't the Green Deal last month promise that we would be the frontrunners of the circular economy?

Back to the starting point: climate change and the need for low-emission technology such as solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars. The World Bank calculated that in a 2°C scenario, the production of graphite, lithium and cobalt - which we need for batteries - would have to increase more than fourfold by 2050 compared to 2018 in order to meet our energy storage needs[1]. In a recent study for OVAM, we came to similar conclusions with VITO[2]. Only by using electric cars in subsystems can we sufficiently limit our climate and material impacts. That is if we start from the current battery technology, and immediately providing the framework for the intention of Tesla, for example, to develop batteries without cobalt, as they announced extensively last week.

But aluminium and copper also require more than tripling production. The same World Bank study calculates that recycled aluminium can 'only' cover 61% of demand by 2050, and that only if all end-of-life cars are recycled. Recycling can therefore make a significant contribution to the increasing demand, but primary production remains necessary. That is the signal for the European mining industry to (re)open mines in Europe. But that looks like digging even deeper into the pit we are already in.

The European Commission is targeting a budget of EUR 30 billion as an investment budget for this Raw Materials Alliance. Money that must come from its own budget, Member States and industry. After all, mining is a capital-intensive activity. This is because large quantities of material have to be treated in order to generate a limited yield of metals. However, EUR 30 billion is also a great deal of money. It must be possible to divide that over various activities. The Global Alliance Against Plastic Waste, which wants to make a worldwide difference in the field of plastic waste in the oceans, is working with 1.5 billion. Investment budgets in new installations in the recycling sector are typically in the order of €50-150 million, leading companies in the circular economy such as Fairphone or Circularise scaled up their activities thanks to subsidies from EIT RawMaterials of several hundred thousand euros. With 5 billion out of 30, the circular economy could receive an enormous boost.

The current ERMA strategy focuses too one-sidedly on restarting mining activities in Europe and still works too strongly from a growth perspective. They need more material, from ever deeper wells. But also in this sector 'flattening the curve' can be a goal, by paying attention to and providing money for dematerialisation, doing more with less material. This can be done by focusing on circular business concepts: selling services instead of products, leasing, partial economy, recovery, reuse. These concepts are supported by digital technology: the Internet of Things, sensors, big data, apps and artificial intelligence. The pleasure of sharing car use is mainly determined by the quality of the app and the extent to which the car can be found. In this way, the digital experience becomes at least as important as the car itself. Scaling up these circular systems therefore creates a need for investment in digital technology. In itself, this is also an important pillar of European policy.

Europe must dare to rethink its growth model. The plans of the European Raw Materials Alliance focus on industrial development, with a focus on mining. There is little talk of less consumption and more circularity. This element must be included in the investment package. If we simply switch to electric cars and do not reduce our demand for individual mobility or resolutely opt for a system of shared cars, the climate targets will not be met and the hunger for raw materials will continue to grow.

Mol, 25 September 2020
 

[1] World Bank, 2020, Minerals for Climate Action: the minerals intensity of the clean energy transition, via http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/961711588875536384/Minerals-for-Climate-Action-The-Mineral-Intensity-of-the-Clean-Energy-Transition.pdf

[2] OVAM, 2020, Toekomstscenario’s van het Vlaamse Voertuigenpark: effecten op klimaat en metaalvoorraden, via https://www.ovam.be/sites/default/files/atoms/files/Rapport%20Toekomstscenario%20s%20van%20het%20Vlaams%20voertuigenpark%20-%20Effecten%20op%20klimaat%20en%20metaalvoorraden_0.pdf

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