It is one of the great paradoxes of our time: in order to overcome some of our dependencies and vulnerabilities — revealed in crises like COVID and the war in Ukraine — we risk falling into other dependencies that are no less toxic. The ecological transition, the digitalization of our economy, or increased defense needs, all pose risks to our supply of strategic minerals.
The European Commission published a plan this week to escape this fate by setting realistic objectives within a relatively short time frame, by the end of this decade.
This plan goes against the dogmas of globalization of the past 30 or 40 years, which relied on just-in-time supply chains from one end of the planet to the other — and, if we’re being honest, outsourced the least “clean” tasks, such as mining or refining minerals, to countries in the developing world.
But the pendulum is now swinging in the other direction, if possible under better environmental and social conditions. Will Europe be able to achieve these objectives while remaining within the bounds of both the ecological and digital transitions? That is the challenge.
The plan presented Thursday in Brussels lists these critical or strategic minerals, which are found in so-called clean technologies, such as electric vehicle batteries or solar panels, but also in satellites, computer equipment, or weapons. Demand is only growing: for example, lithium for electric vehicle batteries is expected to be multiplied by 12 by 2030, and the rare earths needed for wind turbines are expected to be multiplied by four or five.
The EU is asking its member states, in order to ensure the sovereignty of the continent, to plan to extract 10% of the needs from European soil by 2030. A lithium mine project is planned in France, after years of the country having abandoned any mining ambitions.
It is also asking for 15% of needs to be met through recycling, a rapidly growing and virtuous sector. Another objective is to limit the share of a single third country in the supply of a critical mineral to 65%, so as not to end up, as in the case of Russian gas, in the hands of a single supplier.
Caught between U.S. and China
We can truly question the ability of the 27 EU countries to succeed in both transitioning their model, creating new supply chains, reintroducing sectors of activity that Europe had turned its back on, and protecting their sovereignty. This is a dizzying challenge.
China has monopolized a good part of the mining resources in Africa and Latin America.
This notably involves the relationships that Europe will be able to build with the countries producing these minerals, because the current situation is problematic. First, because China has increasingly monopolized a good part of the mining resources in Africa and Latin America, with a real vision that the West did not have. China has also been willing to pay the price for the degradation of its environment, for example, to exploit rare earths that the rest of the world no longer wanted.
Europe has faced multiple major challenges in recent months, such as the future plans for electric vehicle batteries plan or semiconductors. Caught between the attractiveness of the United States with their cheaper energy and generous subsidies, and the hegemonic risk posed by China, Europe is also betting on the future in a real way.