It hasn’t exactly been a secret among experts that Europe’s dependency on the import of certain rare minerals and materials needed in the production of digital devices is worrying, and the EU hasn’t exactly been quick to respond to the growing challenge this represents.
But, like many other issues, it has been brought home by the COVID pandemic, and the European Commission finally proposed an action plan on critical raw materials (CRM) just over a year ago.
The European Parliament’s response to the Commission’s proposals took a year to prepare, with the result, the Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee’s own initiative report, being discussed and approved during the November plenary session.
Nobody doubts the need for action or disputes the fact that CRMs will become even more important in the context of the EU’s ambitious plans for its green and digital transformations under the European Green Deal and the European Digital Strategy respectively.
As Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the Internal Market put it during the plenary debate on Monday evening, “we're going to need 60 times more lithium and 15 times more cobalt in 2050, just for electric batteries. We're going to need 10 times more rare Earth elements”, adding that these numbers did not even take into account “the raw material needs when it comes to other industrial applications that will be coming into place when we have the green and digital transition”.
As for the ITRE report, Breton expressed his satisfaction for “clearly” highlighting the alignment of the two institutions: “we appear very much to be on the same page”, he said.
“We're going to need 60 times more lithium and 15 times more cobalt in 2050, just for electric batteries. We're going to need 10 times more rare Earth elements” Thierry Breton, European Internal Market Commissioner
The report’s author, Hildegard Bentele (DE, EPP), echoed Breton’s sentiment stating in her plenary intervention that she “warmly embraced” the Commission’s proposal, but added that it wasn’t enough: “We need to have a green and digital transformation, so we have to act very quickly to get our hands on more critical raw materials. So, it's high time that we have a more stable supply chain. The commission has tabled 10 measures, which I warmly embrace, but these are not enough in and of themselves”.
Outlining Parliament’s ideas, the German Christian Democrat MEP mentioned a strengthening of the European Raw Materials Alliance, including strategic working parties to coordinate activities on national level, new initiatives regarding storage and recycling and, crucially, “casting around for materials” at home.
Breton had already pointed to the fact that both his institution’s and Parliament’s report had “identified resources within the Union”.
The possibility of mining for rare earths defined the fault line in Parliament’s approach, and Sara Matthieu (BE, Greens/EFA) rapporteur for the opinion of the Environment (ENVI) Committee made clear in her intervention: “We can't have mining and protected nature reserves… There is no support among citizens for such measures”.
Arguing that such initiatives would go against the spirit of the European Green Deal, Matthieu added that colleagues who claimed that a balance between economic demands and biodiversity could be struck were “dreaming”, as they were really “looking to allow large scale mining in vulnerable, fragile ecosystems”.
“We need to have a green and digital transformation, so we have to act very quickly to get our hands on more critical raw materials. So, it's high time that we have a more stable supply chain. The commission has tabled 10 measures, which I warmly embrace, but these are not enough in and of themselves” Hildegard Bentele (DE, EPP)
When the amendments to the report were voted on Tuesday afternoon, the Green position did not prevail but, as the ITRE rapporteur claimed in a press release, environmentalists’ fears had been allayed to a great extent: “The majority of my colleagues supported our position to allow mining projects in nature conservation areas only in a ‘very limited’ way, as well as under strict conditions. This also corresponds to the current legal situation under the NATURA 2000 Directive.”
This compromise was necessary to make the CRM strategy a success, Bentele argued, because it was important for the EU to take responsibility: “If we retreat into a blockade attitude in Europe, the increased extraction of critical raw materials in third countries will continue, which is also associated with supply risks”.
Mining conditions - “mostly far below those used in the EU” in social and environmental terms - as well as the risk of what the Commissioner called the “hybrid threats” of using “access to raw materials as a means for putting geopolitical pressure on the Union and our businesses”, led the rapporteur to conclude that, “instead of ‘not in my backyard’, we need the dissemination of good examples of sustainable mining that set standards worldwide”.
Hildegard Bentele’s report on A European strategy for critical raw materials was adopted with 543 votes to 54 with 94 abstentions.