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28/02/2024
Mining News

EU wants to mine its way out of reliance on China for raw materials

The EU knows it’s heavily dependent on foreign powers like China for valuable materials needed to power its green transition.

Europe wants to start mining its own backyard in an attempt to end reliance on China for raw materials crucial for green technologies like electric car batteries.

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But for the Europeans who live near mineral-rich grounds, opening new mines — with their potential for local environmental damage — is out of the question.

“It’s been my family’s home area since time immemorial,” said Carina Gustafsson, a campaigner who lives near a major reserve of rare earth minerals in southern Sweden that’s a potential mining site. “I really feel like it’s personal — this mining is threatening in so many ways.”

The pushback from campaigners like Gustafsson around the bloc is causing a headache for EU leaders.

Critical raw materials like lithium, cobalt and rare earth elements are found in technologies ranging from electric vehicle batteries to wind turbines and solar panels — tech that lies at the heart of the bloc’s push to go carbon neutral by 2050.

For now, the EU depends in large part on autocratic regimes for its supply of these materials, especially China, which provides nearly 98 percent of the EU’s supply of rare earths.

“Lithium and rare earths will soon be more important than oil and gas,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said last month. “Our demand for rare earths alone will increase fivefold by 2030.”

To avoid the risk of being cut off, Brussels is cooking up new legislation expected in the spring to diversify where it gets these materials from, including by starting new mining projects.

Yet in order to ensure a steady pipeline of such materials and avoid potential blackmail by autocratic providers, the bloc needs to revive certain industrial activities that its environmentally conscious residents would prefer not to have to worry about again.

Chinese monopoly

The EU woke up to its reliance on foreign powers for this green gold dust late in the game, developing its first strategies on raw materials in the late 2000s.

“The overall situation in terms of China has become even worse over time and around 80 percent of all critical raw materials [are] coming from China,” said Frank Umbach, research director at the European Centre for Climate, Energy and Resource Security at King’s College London.

The country entered the raw materials market in the mid-1980s and quickly became a major supplier.

Part of China’s strategy is not only to control raw material mines at home, but also abroad, he said. The Democratic Republic of Congo —  where Chinese companies have already invested billions of euros — supplied about 70 percent of the cobalt in 2021.

Beijing has a “record of blackmailing this dependency,” Umbach said, pointing to a two-month embargo China imposed on rare earth exports to Japan in 2010. Tokyo had captured a Chinese fishing boat in Japan-controlled waters that have long been also claimed by China.

Such incidents risk becoming more frequent, Umbach warned.

The European Commission is acutely aware of the danger. As part of its plan to avoid replacing one dependency with another, the EU executive seeks to establish priority mining projects within the bloc — and ensure they can benefit from streamlined permitting procedures and private investments.

Many countries — including some with ongoing mining projects — support the plan. A Franco-German paper calling for greater financing for raw material production within the bloc last month received support from several countries including Denmark, Ireland, Poland, Greece, Portugal, Finland, Belgium and Romania.

But while the EU executive may have these countries on board, it faces a harder time convincing local residents.

Mining still has a “dirty” image, conceded EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton in a blog post. Environmentalists warn that the possibility of opening new mines within the block risks harming biodiversity and polluting groundwater. That’s making local residents aware of the environmental cost of the green transition — currently being paid by communities on the other side of the globe.

Fighting talk

The trade-off is being felt acutely in Jönköping county, Sweden, home to the EU’s most notable deposit of heavy rare earth metals, an area of forest and farmland named Norra Kärr.

Campaigners have long fought back against attempts to mine it. The proposed site is located nearby a Natura 2000 area — meaning it’s protected by EU law — and uphill of Lake Vättern, Sweden’s deepest and second-largest lake which provides 250,000 people in Sweden with fresh water.

Most recently, Canadian company Leading Edge Materials presented a plan for an open cast pit. The proposal has sparked intense debate in recent years — but campaigners have so far succeeded in staving off the plans.

“It has been the sustaining life force and still is — not just for humans but for farmlands,” said Gustafsson, the Swedish campaigner. “[The plan] is mental to me. Mentally insane.”

The situation is a microcosm for the puzzle of how to marry the hunt for green transition technologies with protecting valuable water sources, biodiversity and sustainable agricultural livelihoods, said geologist Julie Klinger. “The potential [environmental] fallout from [mining Norra Kärr] is really quite serious,” she added.

The mining project’s future remains in limbo.

The project is far from the only contentious mining plan in the EU. From lithium mines in Western Spain and Central Portugal, to a copper mine in Romania — where opponents have been buying up land within the project development area — campaigners could hamper the EU’s attempt to mine its way out of China’s monopoly.

Another way?

Umbach, the King’s College London researcher, said that where “promising projects” emerge in Europe, they run “immediately also into local environmental protests. So it’s obviously difficult.”

Other aspects of the Commission’s plan might hold more promise, according to Klinger, the geologist. While the EU may need to open new mines, she said, this should be a “distant third [choice] behind reprocessing waste and behind recycling,” adding that Sweden is also reprocessing mining waste to extract rare earth elements.

In addition to strong pockets of local resistance, mines can take a long time to start producing, she pointed out — the EU needs new supplies of critical raw materials yesterday.

NGOs also want to see the EU think more about how to reduce consumption, by promoting public transport over the production of new electric vehicles, for example.

“The EU really focuses on the supply side, but you should really think about the demand side, it’s much more important,” said Benjamin Sprecher, an assistant professor at TU Delft.

He expects the EU to go through “a long period of making many mistakes … The question is whether we can afford that long period”, Politico writes.

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