Relying solely on raw materials sourced within Europe could incentivise the use of cheaper, non-recyclable batteries, increasing the need to mine virgin materials to power electric vehicles, industry has said.
Rare earth metals, cobalt and nickel, are key components in lithium-ion batteries and are well-suited for reuse, which has given rise to hopes that much of Europe’s demand for these raw materials can be met through recycling rather than mining.
However, until enough end-of-life batteries enter the system to facilitate widescale reuse, it is necessary to continue mining large quantities of virgin materials to meet projected demand.
Under the proposed EU battery regulation, the use of minimum levels of recycled content for cobalt, lead, lithium, and nickel in battery manufacturing will not become mandatory until 2030.
Nickel is primarily sourced from Latin America at present, while around two-thirds of cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But concerns over poor working conditions there and potential supply disruptions have led the European Union to look for raw materials inside Europe in search of greater “strategic autonomy”.
“More than 90% of rare earth magnets are produced in China today,” reads an extract from a recent report by the EU-backed European Raw Materials Alliance.
“This high production concentration in combination with rising global political tensions and a growing Chinese domestic market demand – particularly driven by a growth in electric mobility – results in a high supply risk for these materials from a European perspective,” the alliance warned.
In addition to opening mines within EU countries, EU leaders have sought to strike deals with neighbouring countries such as Ukraine and Western Balkan nations for raw materials sourcing.
Some lawmakers have gone further and called for European automakers to favour battery chemistries that exclusively require raw materials that can be sourced from Europe.
While shifting exclusively to technology that does not require imports may seem like a solution on paper, doing so would harm efforts to create a more circular economy and may require more virgin material extraction, explained Adam McCarthy, President of the Cobalt Institute.
“The thing that makes [cobalt-free cells] attractive to purchasers is the fact that they’re much cheaper. But that also means that it’s not economical for recycling companies to recycle it, because the value of the metals is lower,” he told EURACTIV.
“So, you have this set of trade-offs where it might be helpful [at meeting a certain policy objective] in some ways, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be better from a new sourcing perspective.”
The Nickel Institute said that while there are world-class nickel producers in Europe, nickel sourced from outside of the EU is currently necessary to meet demand.
“Nickel mined within the EU and from sources outside of the EU complement each other. The growing demand within the EU can only be satisfied by ensuring that mine production from the EU and elsewhere go hand in hand,” a spokesperson told EURACTIV.
Green campaigners, for their part, say the status quo is much worse.
“Europe is essentially 95% supply dependent on imports of crude oil,” said Alex Keynes, a clean vehicles expert with green NGO Transport & Environment. “It’s not like the status quo is a better situation [compared to virgin materials for batteries] and for the climate our dependence on oil is obviously a disaster,” he told EURACTIV.
“The key here is for Europe to move away from oil,” he added.
Mark Mistry, senior manager with the Nickel Institute, said the industry welcomes the due diligence requirements, seeing it as “an opportunity for companies to demonstrate that they fulfil the expectations from regulators, their customers, and civil society”.
However, he warned that the deadlines to implement the responsible sourcing requirements contained in the draft law are overly short given the complexity involved.
“We acknowledge concerns that for the EU battery regulation to be a success, it is important that responsible sourcing be implemented shortly after it enters into force. However, the timeframe needs to remain realistic to develop and implement solid, rigorous responsible sourcing frameworks before auditing takes place,” he wrote in a recent op-ed article.
In response, T&E’s Alex Keynes encouraged lawmakers to stick with the current deadlines, arguing that the due diligence requirement only requires proof that a company has started the process.
“You don’t have to show proof of result, you have to show proof of process and effort,” he said.
“European companies are at the forefront of higher social and environmental sustainability practices. A lot of companies are already implementing social supply chain due diligence policies. Many of these companies are already essentially doing a lot of this stuff,” he added.