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Exploring the Sustainability Prospects of Mining: An Inquiry into EU Mineral Policy

Finland is an old mining country, and minerals have been extracted from the land for hundreds of years. The seminar series provided by the Ecosystems and Environment Research Programme showed what used to be possible in mining is not so any longer, and we need drastic changes to remain within our planetary boundaries.

The European Commission published its proposal for an EU raw materials initiative (Critical Raw Materials Act, CRMA) in March 2023. The proposal contains plans to open new mines in Europe and to utilize minerals found in the waste materials of closed mines. Permitting procedures for new mines are additionally proposed to be shortened, and mining companies will be required to report their environmental footprints to the EU. The European Parliament approved the Act last September. To scrutinize the proposed Act, along with its implications to mining practices and our planetary boundaries, we held a seminar series with invited experts during autumn 2023.

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The seminar series revolved around crucial questions that are expected to fundamentally shape our future: do we have enough minerals in the world for a green transition? What will be the environmental impact of increasing the number of mines? Is circular economy the solution, or should we reduce our consumption?

Europe depends on imported critical raw materials for its green transition

The autumn seminars were kicked off with a thoroughly informative presentation by Henna Virkkunen, Member of The European Parliament (MEP), working on the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE). MEP Virkkunen laid out the facts: the EU is currently dependent on China when it comes to critical raw materials. While Europeans consume around 20% of the world’s critical raw materials, only approximately 2% are produced in Europe. The proposed Act supports the plan to shift this balance towards a more self-sufficient and supply-secure future. The audience raised concerns about environmental safety and environmental degradation due to the increasing volume of mining, especially considering the simplified permitting process for critical raw material projects.

Tackling biodiversity loss while increasing mining is a conundrum

Transitioning from a fossil fuel-based economy is argued to be dependent on mining more (critical) raw materials. But how to do it sustainably with minimal environmental damage, and how well are natural values considered in the short and long term when decisions are made regarding new mines? The Chairman of the Finnish Nature Panel Professor Janne Kotiaho, from the University of Jyväskylä, and environmental activist Riikka Karppinen from Sodankylä further reflected on these questions.

Professor Kotiaho’s message was grimly realistic: biodiversity loss continues at an accelerated rate in both Europe and Finland, and we are all responsible for it. He argued that at the current state of affairs, to truly halt biodiversity and nature loss, we need to implement restorative, nature-positive solutions instead of solutions based on the principle of no net loss. Karppinen expressed shock and discontent regarding the aims to facilitate the opening of new mines in currently protected areas in the name of a green transition. Karppinen has frequently spoken out against a global mining company that is planning on opening a new nickel mine near her home in an area protected by Finnish law and the EU Natura framework. During her presentation, she kindly shared her experiences regarding the residents’ struggles.

The critical raw materials are not renewable

The green transition’s burden on the natural environment may indeed be enormous. But do we have enough materials to fully shift to renewables, or are we about to reach the limits of the planet’s boundaries? Research Professor Simon Michaux, from the Finnish Geological Survey, provided astounding figures on the amounts of minerals actually required for the green transition. According to his estimates, at current energy use rates, we simply do not have enough minerals in the world to fully shift to renewables, and in fact, minerals are “the new oil”. Professor Michaux’s presentation left us thinking: if we do not have enough materials in the world to substitute fossil fuels with renewables, are our current consumption patterns simply doomed?

To better understand how the new Critical Raw Materials Act may look like in Finland, we listened to a presentation by Jarkko Vesa, Special Advisor at the Finnish Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment. He provided a thorough overview on how the implementation process began. As the Director of Sustainable Development of the mining company Terrafame, Veli-Matti Hilla further underscored: it is clear that mining has received a substantial boost from the EU institutes.

A mix of solutions is needed for a sustainable future

Director Lasse Miettinen from Sitra gave the closing presentation to our seminar series, and it ended on a rather optimistic note. He argued – in line with most of our presenters, along with our own concerns – that we are currently exceeding the limits of our planet. To imagine a more sustainable future, we need to learn to think about ecosystems in a more nuanced and interconnected way. The climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and natural resource depletion cannot be solved separately. Both biotic and abiotic resources are part of nature and managing them should be reframed accordingly. Director Miettinen argued that transitioning to a circular economy is a crucial part and precondition of the solution to our multiple crises. To reduce supply risks and ensure positive environmental outcomes, we need circular solutions, diversified supplies, and more local production beside aiming for sustainable lifestyles and biodiversity offsets. He encouraged us to think that building a more sustainable future is indeed possible.

Professor of Practice in Environmental Responsibility and Chair of the seminar series, Hannele Pokka further noted that while observing how mining in Finland has developed over the years, ordinary people tend to support mining but under no circumstances do they want a mine near their homes. Finland is an old mining country, and minerals have been extracted from the land for hundreds of years. Public opinion in Finland has taken a more critical stance on mining in recent years, which has been reinforced by the Talvivaara mine environmental disaster. It has been difficult for new mining projects to gain social acceptance, and several mining projects, especially in Northern Finland are pending. If mining companies want to seek approval for their projects, mining should be reformed to incorporate a more comprehensive notion of sustainability, including new approaches and technological solutions in water management.


Source: Mirage News

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