Increasingly strategic raw materials – Blog of Commissioner Thierry Breton

(Source: European Commission)

By 2030, 30 million electric cars are expected to be on our roads.

An equal number of batteries will need to be produced, for which access to raw materials is becoming more critical every day.

For lithium, cobalt and graphite, Europe remains heavily dependent on supplies from third countries (China in the lead, not to name it), which can be as much as 100% for refined lithium, for example… Whereas we have deposits here in Europe!

The same is true for motors, and more particularly the permanent magnets that compose them, and for which China controls the entire value chain.

But what do we see?

In the past year alone, prices for rare earths used to make permanent magnets have risen by 50-90%.

Without better access to raw materials, our goals of zero-emission mobility are at risk due to raw material shortages or rising costs.

I could also tell you about silicon, which is essential for both photovoltaics and semiconductors.

The evidence is the same: demand is expected to increase fivefold by 2030. And vulnerabilities all along our value chains, affecting all products, from simple toys to the most sophisticated industrial robots.

A true global race for supply

While demand is increasing dramatically due to the digital and green transition of our society  ̶  not to mention the rise in defence and security needs  ̶  we are too often almost entirely dependent on imports, while the geopolitics of supply chains are increasingly unstable and we are seeing a true global race to source and recycle critical raw materials.

Our “systemic rivals” (China) and our partners (United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea) have understood this.

Of course, we must continue to use our foreign trade channels, as we are and remain an open continent.

But external diversification cannot be achieved at the expense of developing European know-how.

Nor of our autonomy or capacity to act.

Above all, we need the capacity to separate, refine and recycle raw materials, which are also too often concentrated in China.

There would be no point in having stable partnerships in raw materials if we were to remain dependent in the refining phase, for example.

Whether we like it or not, the weight of the European Union on the international scene and in relation to its partners and competitors depends on our ability to put our assets on the table and not to be mere “clients” or applicants.

We need to build power.

It is therefore high time to act

It is time to enshrine in legislation which raw materials are critical or strategic for Europe.

This list will be our compass and will provide a stable, agile and predictable legal framework in order – for example – to identify projects, facilitate investments, guide our international partnerships and direct the innovation agenda.

This includes mining in Europe, which is still a taboo at present.

Mining is still considered by many to be, and I use quotation marks here, “dirty”.

We prefer to import from third countries and turn a blind eye to the environmental and social impact that occurs there, not to mention the carbon footprint of our imports.

However, mining in Europe can benefit from new technologies that allow extraction with a very low environmental impact.

An open debate on the potential of deposits in Europe

I would therefore like to see an open debate on the potential of the deposits in Europe and how to encourage private investment.

To do this, we need to set quantified targets for the development of industrial capacity, particularly refining and recycling.

And to enable a strategic and coordinated investment policy.

In order to lead the global race to the top, we can, for example, set requirements for the sustainable, circular and socially responsible sourcing of these raw materials.

Promote recycling and alternative solutions

At the same time, we need to promote more innovation – especially in recycling solutions and alternatives to critical raw materials.

Of course, it will take time for recycled materials in Europe to meet all our needs.

But it’s coming. And we can start reducing our dependencies and our environmental and carbon footprint now.

That is why we must also make full use of the opportunities offered by our European internal market, for example by facilitating the movement of recycled materials within it.

We would thus make our single market the geostrategic instrument it has always been.

It makes sense. For our continent, our economy and our planet.

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