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The EU’s quest for metals: Balancing climate goals with indigenous rights and environmental concerns

As the European Union (EU) strives to achieve its 2050 climate goals, including carbon neutrality, the demand for metals such as copper, lithium, cobalt and Rare Earth Elements (REEs) has surged. However, this ambition poses a threat to the ancient way of life of the indigenous Sámi people in northern Sweden, where a mine expansion is deemed critical to meeting the EU’s aspirations.

The EU has classified 34 metals and minerals as critical, recognizing their pivotal role in modern weaponry, digitalization, and the transition to clean energy technologies. Despite being one of the world’s largest consumers of raw materials, the EU currently produces only about 3% of them. To enhance supply security and reduce dependence on foreign sources like China, the EU aims to mine at least 10% of its annual consumption of critical raw materials by 2030, as outlined in the Critical Raw Materials Act adopted by the European Parliament in December 2023.

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Euronews delved into the implications of this target in Sweden, where Boliden operates the Aitik mine, Europe’s largest copper mine, in Gällivare. While Boliden acknowledges the environmental impact, it advocates for local production over imports from regions with lower labor and environmental standards. However, locals displaced by mining expansion, like Katarina, express skepticism about the industry’s environmental motives and emphasize its profit-driven nature.

Moreover, the region is home to the Sámi, the EU’s only indigenous people, who lament the fragmentation of their territory due to mining and industrial development. Niila Inga, a reindeer herder, highlights the challenges they face as their land is encroached upon for resource extraction.

As Europe continues to prioritize metals, tensions persist between energy transition goals, autonomy, and local environmental concerns. Member states grapple with the delicate balance between addressing climate imperatives and safeguarding indigenous rights and environmental sustainability in the face of an uncertain shift from fossil fuels to metal dependency.

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