The EU wants to wean itself out of dependence on China for raw materials. He will have to convince the locals

Press play to hear this article

This article is part of a special report by European Union, Inc.

Europe wants to start mining its own backyard in a bid to end dependence on China for raw materials crucial to green technologies such as batteries for electric cars.

But for Europeans living near mineral-rich lands, the discovery of new mines – with their potential for local environmental damage – is out of the question.

“This has been my family’s home since time immemorial,” said Karina Gustafsson, an activist who lives near a major rare-earth mineral reserve in southern Sweden that is a potential mining site. “I really feel it’s personal — this mining is a threat in so many ways.”

Pushback from activists like Gustafsson across the bloc is causing headaches for EU leaders.

Critical raw materials such as lithium, cobalt and rare earth elements are found in technologies ranging from electric vehicle batteries to wind turbines and solar panels – technology that underpins the bloc’s drive to become carbon neutral by 2050.

For now, the EU is largely dependent on autocratic regimes for its supply of these materials, especially China, which provides nearly 98 percent of the EU’s supply of rare earth elements.

“Lithium and rare earth elements will soon be more important than oil and gas,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said last month. “Our demand for rare earths alone will increase fivefold by 2030.”

To avoid the risk of disruption, Brussels is preparing new legislation, expected in the spring, to diversify where it gets these materials from, including by launching new mining projects.

Yet to ensure a steady flow of such materials and avoid potential extortion by autocratic suppliers, the bloc needs to revive certain industrial activities that its environmentally conscious residents would prefer not to worry about again.

Chinese Monopoly

The EU realized its dependence on foreign powers for this late-game green gold dust, developing its first strategies for raw materials in the late 2000s.

“The overall situation regarding China has become even worse over time and about 80 percent of all critical raw materials [are] coming from China,” said Frank Umbach, research director at the European Center for Climate, Energy and Resource Security at King’s College London.

Rare Earth Mine in Ganxian County, Central China’s Jiangxi Province | Stringer/China Outlet via EPA

The country entered the commodity market in the mid-1980s and quickly became a major supplier.

Part of China’s strategy is not only to control raw material mines at home but also abroad, he said. The Democratic Republic of Congo, where Chinese companies have already invested billions of euros, has supplied about 70 percent of the cobalt in 2021..

Beijing has “a track record of extorting this dependency,” Umbach said, pointing to a two-month embargo imposed by China on rare-earth exports to Japan in 2010. Tokyo had seized a Chinese fishing boat in Japanese-controlled waters that had also long been claimed from China.

Such incidents risk becoming more frequent, Umbach warned.

The European Commission is aware of the danger. As part of its plan to avoid trading one dependency for another, the EU executive seeks to establish priority mining projects within the bloc — and ensure they can benefit from streamlined permitting procedures and private investment.

Many countries – including some with ongoing mining projects – support the plan. A Franco-German document calling for more funding for raw materials production within the bloc last month won support from several countries, including Denmark, Ireland, Poland, Greece, Portugal, Finland, Belgium and Romania.

But while the EU executive may have these countries on board, it faces a tougher time convincing locals.

Mining still has a “dirty” image, EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton admitted in a blog post. Environmentalists warn that the possibility of opening new mines in the block risks harming biodiversity and contaminating groundwater. This makes local residents aware of the environmental cost of the green transition – currently being paid by communities on the other side of the globe.

Battle tales

The trade-off is acutely felt in Jönköping County, Sweden, home to the EU’s most notable heavy rare-earth metal deposit, an area of ​​forest and farmland called Norra Kärr.

Activists have long opposed mining efforts. The proposed site is close to a Natura 2000 area — meaning it is protected by EU law — and up by Lake Vättern, Sweden’s deepest and second largest lake, which provides fresh water to Sweden’s 250,000 people.

View of Roșia Poieni Copper Mine in Rosia Poenii, Romania | Andrea Campeanu/Getty Images

Most recently, Canadian company Leading Edge Materials presented a plan for an open pit mine. The proposal has sparked intense debate in recent years, but campaigners have so far managed to prevent the plans.

“It was the sustaining life force and still is – not only for people but also for farmland,” said Gustafsson, the Swedish activist. “[The plan] it’s mental for me. Mentally insane.

The situation is a microcosm of the puzzle of how to reconcile the demand for green transition technologies with the protection of precious water sources, biodiversity and sustainable agricultural livelihoods, said geologist Julie Klinger. “The potential [environmental] fall from [mining Norra Kärr] it’s really quite serious,” she added.

The future of the mining project remains uncertain.

The project is far from the only controversial mining plan in the EU. From lithium mines in western Spain and central Portugal to a copper mine in Romania – where opponents are buying up land within the project’s development zone – activists could thwart the EU’s attempt to break out of China’s monopoly.

Another way?

Umbach, a researcher at King’s College London, said that when “promising projects” appear in Europe, they “immediately run into local environmental protests.” So obviously it’s difficult.”

Other aspects of the Commission’s plan may be more promising, according to geologist Klinger. While the EU may have to open new mines, she said, it should be a “distant third [choice] behind waste processing and behind recycling,” adding that Sweden also processes mining waste to extract rare earth elements.

In addition to strong pockets of local resistance, the mines could take a long time to start producing, she pointed out – the EU needed new supplies of critical raw materials yesterday.

NGOs also want to see the EU think more about how to reduce consumption by promoting public transport instead of producing new electric vehicles, for example.

“The EU really focuses on supply, but you really have to think about demand, it’s much more important,” said Benjamin Sprecher, assistant professor at TU Delft.

He expects the EU to go through “a long period of making many mistakes… The question is whether we can afford this long period”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *