6. Mining in Europe
Despite millennia of mining, Europe still has metal deposits that are feasible for extraction. These include many of the metals that we need for the energy and digital transitions, such as lithium, cobalt and rare earths. Stepping up metal mining and processing within its borders would increase the EU’s security of supply. It would also shrink the ecological footprint of our metal consumption, thanks to EU environmental regulations and reduced intercontinental transport.
Still, metal mining comes at a price. Open-pit mining in particular affects biodiversity, which is already in serious decline in Europe. Toxic mining waste may pose a threat to river basins and drinking water resources. Europe has not been spared from dam failures where the muddy mining waste caused widespread pollution. This is a price many Europeans are unwilling to pay. New mining projects often provoke civic protest.
One way to minimise the damage is to first look at the mines we already have, both active and inactive, before creating new scars in the landscape. In current mining operations, many valuable minerals that are mixed with the sought-after metals end up as waste. Unless costs, risks or laws (1) are prohibitive, mining operators should be obliged to utilise all the marketable minerals they dig up, instead of dumping all but one of them as left-over ‘tailings’. This obligation should extend to downstream processors. Thus, for instance, cobalt can be obtained as a companion metal of copper and nickel.