Geef je mening over het Europese beleid inzake kritieke grondstoffen

Op 4 juni organiseert een aantal GroenLinks-werkgroepen een webinar over de jacht op grondstoffen. Peter Handley, hoofd van de eenheid Grondstoffen en Energie-intensieve Industrieën van de Europese Commissie, is de hoofdspreker tijdens dit webinar. Richard Wouters van Wetenschappelijk Bureau GroenLinks zal reageren op de inleiding van Handley. Beiden schreven een voorzet voor de discussie. Die vind je hieronder. Commentaar op deze teksten is zeer welkom.

Zo reageer je

Op- en aanmerkingen bij de teksten van Handley en Wouters kun je in het reactieveld onderaan deze pagina zetten. Dat mag uiteraard ook in het Nederlands. De reacties vormen stof voor discussie tijdens het webinar.

EU action on critical raw materials

by Peter Handley

Securing reliable and unhindered access to raw materials is in the strategic interest of the European Union. More than 30 million jobs in the EU and many key economic sectors such as automotive, aerospace, and renewable energy are dependent on a sustainable supply of raw materials. Raw materials are particularly crucial for the development of modern environmentally friendly technologies and a strong European industrial base in the digital age. For example, a smartphone might contain up to 50 different kinds of metals, all of which contribute to its small size, light weight and functionality.

The strategic relevance of raw materials lies in the fact that many essential raw materials, such as Vanadium, Platinum or Rare Earth Elements, used in batteries and magnets, are largely sourced from outside the EU. This in itself is not a problem, but reliance on single, or very restricted sources of supply creates a risk of supply disruption. Furthermore, not all third countries producing raw materials match up to the EU’s expectations in terms of environmental and social standards. The EU can do more to help itself by extracting and processing those raw materials that we have in Europe in an environmentally responsible way; by recovering raw materials from products at the end of their life, and by being much more efficient generally with the amount of resources used to make products. This is where circular economy comes in.

Securing the supply of raw materials

Given the strategic importance of raw materials, securing their supply has been a long-standing issue for the Europe. The first moves started at the same time as the 1970s oil crisis, when the Commission analysed the risks, looked into Europe’s potential to become more self-sufficient and set up the Raw Materials Supply Group to provide advice. In 2008, the Commission presented the Raw Materials Initiative (RMI), which has provided the basis for EU action ever since. It defined three priorities, namely (1) securing a fair and sustainable supply from global markets, (2) developing the EU’s own production in a sustainable way, and (3) making use of resource efficiency and ‘secondary raw materials’ from recycling.

The List of Critical Raw Materials is a direct, and visible, result of the RMI. Updated every three years, the list defines critical raw materials based on their economic importance and their supply risk. It serves as a basis for setting the research agenda and informing trade negotiations and international dialogues. The last list published in 2017 included 27 critical raw materials, and identified China, Brazil, the USA, Russia and South Africa as the most important suppliers of critical raw materials.

In 2012, the European Commission established the European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials to support innovation in the raw materials sector. This stakeholder platform brings together industries from mining and extraction, as well as the forest-based sectors and downstream user sectors such as chemicals, automotive and waste management, Member States and civil society organisations. It identifies a multiannual programme, develops the knowledge base, and secures funding for innovative pilot actions on exploration, mining, processing, and recycling of raw materials. The European framework programme for research and innovation has contributed substantially to innovation in the raw materials sector with a €600 million budget in Horizon 2020.

In 2017, the EU adopted the Conflict Minerals Regulation. This addresses unethical sourcing of certain raw materials used to finance armed conflicts or associated with forced labour. The regulation, which will take effect on 1 January 2021, requires EU importers of tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold to adopt a due diligence framework defined by the OECD, to be monitored by Member State authorities.

Recent high-level policy documents have confirmed the importance of raw materials for surmounting the challenges of tomorrow: The European Green Deal, the Commission’s plan to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 while pursuing growth in a sustainable way, recognises “access to resources as a strategic security question to fulfil its ambition. Ensuring the supply of sustainable raw materials, in particular of critical raw materials necessary for clean technologies, digital, space and defence applications, by diversifying supply from both primary and secondary sources, is therefore one of the pre-requisites to make this transition happen.”

The new EU Industrial Strategy equally stresses that “to become more competitive as it becomes greener and more circular, industry will need a secure supply of clean and affordable energy and raw materials” and announces an action plan designed to address the security and sustainability challenges of raw materials. The new Circular Economy Action Plan proposes measures to create a well-functioning EU market for secondary raw materials.

A greener, smarter and more resilient economy

The Covid-19 crisis and the severe disruptions in global supply chains it has entailed highlight the risks associated with just-in-time delivery and single-supplier sourcing. Diversification, local production and substitutability have become more important than ever. In its response to Covid-19, the European Commission has addressed both the health and economic aspects and has stressed that the recovery plan should be a vehicle for making the European economy greener, smarter (more digital) and more resilient. Reinforcing the EU’s industrial and strategic autonomy is the idea running through this focus on resilience.

This is one reason why the EU has developed the European Batteries Alliance and a strategic action plan on batteries, to ensure that Europe catches up in the global race to develop clean batteries for road vehicles and energy storage. This alliance starts, rightly, from the supply of battery raw materials such as lithium, where a number of projects are coming on stream to develop and refine battery-grade lithium in Europe, and work on responsible sourcing of battery raw materials.  

The European Commission is looking into due diligence as a horizontal issue. A recent study for the Commission looks into due diligence requirements through the supply chain and indicates that there could be value in developing a horizontal regulatory framework to bring greater clarity and predictability to an area in which scores of international, industry- or NGO-led voluntary initiatives jostle for position.

Coming soon: On 27 May, the European Commission will announce the Covid-19 recovery plan – expect this to include major investments in the European Green Deal and resilience. This year, the European Commission will publish the new EU list of critical raw materials – expect this to come with an action plan, including measures to broaden international partnerships on critical raw materials, develop resilient raw material value chains, reinforce transparency and sustainability.

Corona crisis lends new urgency to circularity and responsible sourcing

by Richard Wouters

Most of the materials on the European Commission’s list of critical raw materials are minerals. Those are non-renewable resources. This raises the question of justice between generations. Does the rate at which we currently dig up and use those mineral resources to meet our needs compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs? For some minerals this seems to be certainly true. According to scientific estimates, the extractable resources of antimony in the upper kilometre of the continental crust will be depleted by 2040. Gold will be depleted by 2055, zinc and molybdenum by 2100. In the next century rhenium and copper will follow and in the following century chromium, bismuth, boron, tin, silver and lead. The extractable resources of the most commonly used metal, iron, will be depleted by 2400. By that time phosphate rock, essential for agriculture, might have run out as well.

Not leaving future generations empty-handed requires at the very least that we use minerals efficiently, maximise recycling and substitute the most scarce minerals by more abundant or renewable (biological) materials. The circular economy initiatives by the European Commission are, by and large, welcome steps in this direction. They tie in well with the pursuit of a climate-neutral Europe. Closing material loops is essential for phasing out our greenhouse gas emissions.

Game consoles and flatscreens

Exploiting minerals and other forms of natural capital, while respecting planetary boundaries and avoiding depletion, is defensible if we use these resources to create other types of capital that are crucial for the well-being of future generations. Economic capital in the form of machines, buildings and an agricultural system to feed mankind; human capital in the form of knowledge and culture; social capital in the form of mutual trust; and institutional capital in the form of the bodies that protect our rights. (Liesbeth Beneder and I have elaborated on this approach in a 2015 article, which was inspired by the science fiction thriller Interstellar and philosopher John Rawls’ difference principle.)

By this measure, the use of large amounts of scarce metal ores by present generations to make the transition from a fossil to a renewable energy system is not necessarily unfair towards future generations. They will hugely benefit from our energy transition if we complete it in time to avert a climate catastrophe. The use of scarce metals for ever-slicker smartphones or gaming gadgets is not so easy to defend. In my view, the European Union should provide itself with the legislative tools to ban the use of specific materials for non-essential applications, if recycling those materials is not yet possible and/or if there is a shortage of supply. Game consoles and flatscreens should not come at the expense of solar panels, wind turbines and batteries for electric vehicles.

Resource curse

We should not only be concerned about intergenerational justice, but also about intragenerational justice. All too often, the benefits of minerals extraction flow to mining multinationals and importing countries, whereas the people in mining areas suffer from environmental destruction, human rights violations, corruption and conflicts. For many developing countries, mineral wealth is a curse rather than a blessing. Fortunately, the European Commission doesn’t turn a blind eye to this injustice. Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders recently announced that the Commission will table legislation to expand due diligence requirements for companies. Ideally, they will have to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for environmental damage, human rights violations and corruption that are linked to their operations, subsidiaries or value chains. The new law will not be a panacea, but at least Europe takes responsibility for its part in the resource curse.

The Covid-19 crisis adds urgency to the responsible sourcing of raw materials. Mining is one of the economic activities that encroach on the remaining habitats of wildlife. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the miners who dig up coltan for our smartphones often resort to hunting great apes and other wild animals, for lack of other protein sources. The preparation and consumption of bushmeat carries a high risk of infectious diseases jumping over from animal to human. This is a resource curse that hangs over the entire world. It turns both the responsible sourcing of minerals and the frugal, circular use of them into matters of life and death for all humankind.

Responsible sourcing is far easier to achieve within the European Union than outside its borders. In view of the risk of zoonoses that comes with mining in Africa, the European Greens should consider softening their opposition to new mining projects in Europe, as far as metals are concerned which are vital for the energy transition, such as cobalt. (I admit that this is easy to say from the Netherlands, which is extremely poor in metal ores.)

Geopolitics and a local paradox

I started this article by pointing out that certain minerals are geologically scarce. This scarcity is not reflected in the European Commission’s list of critical raw materials. The list exclusively deals with supply risks due to conflicts or other disruptions of trade. Geopolitical scarcity, so to say. This approach can have adverse consequences. For instance, it encourages European industries to substitute 'critical' magnesium by non-critical metals. Zinc is an alternative. But zinc is much scarcer in geological terms. Is it wise to deplete a scarce metal ore to replace a less scarce one? We would increase industry's security of supply, but not for long. Future generations might miss out on zinc, which is an indispensable micronutrient for crops. My advice to the Commission would be to integrate geological scarcity into its new list of critical raw materials. This would add zinc, molybdenum, rhenium and copper to the list, for instance.

Geological scarcity of minerals is one more reason to introduce a European tax on primary raw materials, whether they be domestic or imported. This policy tool is missing from the Commission’s European Green Deal plan. It remains to be seen if the proposed carbon border adjustment mechanism will go some way towards it. Taxation of primary raw materials would make secondary raw materials more competitive and thus give a boost to recycling. Low demand for secondary materials is one of the reasons why some local councils in the Netherlands, after having taught their citizens that household waste is a valuable resource, are facing a pay-as-you-throw paradox (diftarparadox) now: as citizens get better at sorting waste, it becomes harder for the municipality to cover the costs of collecting and processing waste. In a truly circular economy, sorted household waste would be extremely valuable. Traders would crowd our front door to collect our broken electronics, discarded clothing and potato peelings. We’re nowhere there yet.