The climate crisis leaves us no choice but to make a swift transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, while saving as much energy as we can. Already, solar and wind power have entered the phase of exponential growth, as have electric vehicles and the batteries that power them. According to the European Commission, the European Union will need up to 18 times more lithium and 5 times more cobalt in 2030 than it consumes today in total, for electric car batteries and energy storage alone. By 2050, we would need almost 60 times more lithium and 15 times more cobalt. (1)
The digital transition, a second spearhead of the EU, also relies on metals. Many digital innovations enhance our quality of life. Teleworking and videoconferencing have proven particularly useful during the coronavirus crisis. Sensors, data and algorithms allow us to make a more sustainable use of resources, including energy and materials. But all digital technologies require energy and materials in turn. Despite the ethereal metaphor of ‘the cloud’, the data economy has a heavy material footprint, which includes a wide array of metals. Gains in the energy and material efficiency of devices and networks are outpaced by the exponential growth of data use, which doubles every two to three years. (2) European demand for rare earths used in permanent magnets for digital devices, but also for electric cars and wind turbines, could increase tenfold by 2050. (3)
The EU is between 75 and 100 per cent dependent on imports for most metals. This creates risks for Europe’s security of supply and for its strategic autonomy. It also raises the issue of climate justice, since the greatest burdens of metal mining are falling on the Global South. Therefore, metals are the Achilles heel of the energy and digital transitions.
Should we rethink our use of joules and bytes to save metals? How do we stop valuable metals ending up as waste? Can we procure those metals that we really need in a way which is equitable for developing countries and future generations? This dossier looks at the metals quandary from various ethical and political angles. Over the coming months, it will be completed with an Agenda for Action that charts a course towards a responsible sourcing of metals for a green and digital Europe. You can contribute to this Agenda by leaving your comments below or by joining one of the Green European Foundation's transnational webinars on metals.