Critical mineral sourcing must also be sustainable for the EU’s clean energy transition
The European Union has become a global leader in the movement to a clean energy transition. A central part of this movement has been the result of transitioning from traditional fossil fuels, primarily oil, gas, and coal, towards more areas producing fewer greenhouse gas emissions, such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, and electric energy.
The Fit for 55 plan has served as the basis for the EU to transition to climate neutrality by 2050, and 55 percent reduction of GHG emissions by 2030 in relation to 2005 levels. More recently, the REPowerEU plan presented by the European Commission has served as a basis for future clean energy transitions within the bloc, hoping to reduce emissions, along with dependence in particular on fossil fuel imports from Russia.
Such considerations can be taken in light of these recent events, including the Russian Federation’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which has required many in the European Union to revert to burning more coal to meet energy demands, while subsequently scrambling not to squeeze citizens out of access to energy as a result of rising consumer and utility prices.
Additionally, in the United States, the Democratic party was able to push through a bill which was, although not truly as ambitious as should be done in regards to more sustainable future transitions, another step forward for Europe’s most impotant important ally in the transition towards greater renewable energy usage.
The EU has come a long way in recent years to reduce emissions and improve environmental standards for citizens of the bloc. Moving towards the reduction of fossil fuels in favor of more sustainable energy solutions, in a combination with broader environmental goals such as addressing pollution of waterways, forest degradation, and loss of biodiversity, is the best way in which the EU, along with countries across the globe, is a net good in both the short and long run. Yet, in making this transition one major concern regarding the sustainable energy transition has been notably underdiscussed, and almost broadly ignored.
Critical minerals are central to the current trajectory of the clean energy transition. Critical minerals include 30 raw materials classified by the European Commission as critical for society and industry. These elements are central to most modern technologies and serve as the basis for raw material sourcing which powers the clean energy transition.
While these mineral resources are central to the clean energy transition, the extraction and importation of these raw materials come with their own concerns, including disruption to local environments, importing from countries that are unreliable and major violators of human rights, and energy-intensive in their own production. How, then, can the EU work towards a clean energy transition which focuses on the consequences of a shift towards greater dependence on critical minerals?
Initial consideration of where these minerals are, and will, come from is necessary. Many of these elements come from areas in which political leaders are less than dependable, and the worst violators of human rights. China is a major producer of a rare collection of critical minerals which are central to building products including electric vehicles, solar panels, and rechargeable batteries, and also controls the mining production of these resources in other countries.
Russia is a key producer of copper, nickel, and platinum, among other minerals and has also established itself in other continents, such as Africa, along with China in the extraction of critical minerals. The Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, is the source of over 70 percent of the world’s cobalt supplies, which is used in lithium-ion batteries as a replacement for natural gas, where China and Russia have extraction footholds. Diversity of supply will likely be key to the transition, and the EU must aim toward both reducing dependence on Chinese and Russian production of critical minerals and improving human rights conditions in these countries, to the extent to which this is possible.
In the long run, technological support from the EU should focus on reducing dependence on mineral resource extraction which is energy intensive and disruptive to local environments. While reducing fossil fuel dependence will require a greater transition towards critical mineral extraction, the EU, and countries across the world, should ensure that there is not too great of a swing towards the overproduction of these minerals. An overproduction could result in consequences mentioned above, and likely others unseen, that could create their own environmental harms and disrupt both the natural world and the wellbeing of communities.
Improving the efficiency of the modes of transportation and technologies that we use every day, in the long run, will reduce dependence on broader energy dependence in general. Technological advancements and cooperation within the EU should allow better regulation of energy-efficient investments and advancements to allow future developments to reduce environmental harm and improve human surroundings.
Buildings, such as a large wooden “skyscraper” in Sweden, are one example of the current framework for how future developments can reduce the materials used for necessary parts of society and are less intensive on the environment.
While the clean energy transition is certainly a net good for the wellbeing of the environment and the future surroundings of Europe’s residents, this transition must also not simply shift consequences to different harms.
Focusing on reducing dependence on undependable countries that are major violators of human rights, ensuring that overproduction of critical minerals does not occur in the future, and aiming towards broadly reducing the necessity of material production and instead aiming towards greater efficiency in development, must be central to the clean energy transition in the EU and across the globe.