To achieve its energy and climate goals, the European Union will need to electrify on a massive scale, which in turn, will require more raw materials for the manufacture of electricity-generating and storage equipment such as batteries, wind turbines and solar panels.
To this end, the European Commission presented its proposal in mid-March for a Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA), with a view to advancing the EU’s energy and ecological transition.
Under it, EU countries must ensure that 10% of the extraction, 40% of the refining and 15% of the recycling of several dozen raw materials takes place on home turf by 2030.
On top of that, the Commission proposes the EU should no longer be more than 65% dependent on a single non-EU country for a single raw material – a difficult task given to what extent the EU currently depends on imported minerals, notably from China, which accounts for up to 90% of the value chain for certain materials.
Those targets have been at the centre of the debate ever since, with some lawmakers in the European Parliament opposed to their introduction and some EU countries like France and Germany prefering targets for individual minerals.
“It would be absurd to set the same targets for cobalt, 80% of whose reserves are located in a single African country, as for lithium, for example, which can be mined in Europe,” explained French Industry Minister Roland Lescure.
The French mining industry also supports the idea of introducing sector-specific targets for individual raw materials, saying Europe “lacks sufficient production capacity and time to implement them” for certain metals listed in the CRMA, explained Christophe Poinssot, deputy director general of the French geological and mining research bureau.
But beyond the difficulties of supplying certain minerals domestically, Poinssot also pointed to data gaps due to an unexplored geological potential in Europe.
In France, “knowledge of subsoil resources is extremely patchy and covers only part of the country,” Poinssot said at a conference organised by the right-wing Les Républicains party in early July.
“The inventory carried out 40 years ago was for a long time limited to the first 100 metres underground,” he explained.
Resources in Europe’s subsoil could even be exported, the researcher also said.
Norway, for example, recently discovered a phosphate deposit that could supply a considerable proportion of the EU’s needs. At the beginning of January, Sweden also announced the discovery a major deposit of rare earth oxides.
Under these conditions, “we need to reinvest in learning more about our subsoil and reopening mines. To do this, we need to relaunch an inventory of the mineral resources present in all 27 EU member states,” Poinssot argues.
New mines take time
However, new mining projects take many years to come to fruition, said Poinssot, who pointed to the average 17 years it takes to bring a mine from exploration into production, globally.
“We need to start working now on developing mining projects,” he said. Otherwise, “a certain number of trajectories and scenarios desired by the EU will be constrained by our extraction capacities,” he warned.
The French Atomic Energy Commission, a key player in French industrial and technological research, also shares this observation, saying EU objectives are “not very credible” because of the intrinsic delays in opening new mines.
Between now and 2030, “most of the extraction capacity that will be available in the EU […] depends on projects that are already under development,” explains the French body in its opinion on the draft CRMA.
To address this, the French research energy body suggests that the Commission “define progressively increasing targets for the share of extraction in the EU over different time horizons”.
In short, without opening a mine now, the EU is already behind its targets.
“The Commission is a little too optimistic about the speed with which we will be able to deploy industrial solutions to achieve these targets,” Bertrand Boucher, the CEA’s representative to the European Commission, told EURACTIV France.
Despite these caveats, the EU has every interest in speeding up mining projects since the transformation and recycling parts of the value chain will remain “permanently insufficient to meet demand,” CEA added.
Even if all available resources were to be extracted, “more will be needed” because of the very high demand, Bouchet explained.
For instance, “there won’t be enough resources worldwide” to meet the electric mobility targets adopted by all countries globally, Poinssot explained, adding that “it’s not a question of resources but of timing”.
Jean-Dominique Senard, Chairman of French carmaker Renault, painted the situation in doomsday terms, saying that “the war of the future will be the war of metals”.
This means that CRMA targets need to match those of the Net-Zero Industry Act (NZIA), as advocated by the European Association of Research and Technology Organisations (EARTO), of which CEA is a member.