EU sets critical mineral goals for green transition

Brussels: The EU has set targets to dig up, recycle and refine lithium, cobalt and other metals it needs for its green transition, but a shortage of new money, crippling energy costs and local opposition could put them beyond reach.

The bloc will likely need to find ways to trim demand, find substitute materials and forge partnerships.

The Critical Raw Materials Act, due to enter force in early 2024, says the bloc should mine 10 percent, recycle 25 percent and process 40 percent of its annual needs of 17 key raw materials by 2030.

The materials are essential for vehicle batteries, wind turbine magnets and other clean tech products the EU wants to manufacture. The CRMA aims to reduce the bloc’s reliance on China, which dominates global mineral processing and has already threatened EU supply with export curbs.

Studies forecast recycling will be limited until 2035-2040, when metals re-enter the market as scrap.

Researchers from Belgian university KU Leuven concluded in a 2022 report that the period to 2030 will be the most challenging for metal supply, highlighting risks for copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt and rare earth elements.

The CRMA aims to speed up granting of project permits, which for a mine should be within 27 months, from a potential 10-15 years now, but other obstacles remain.

Eurometaux, Europe’s association for non-ferrous metals, says Europe has potential, but needs cheaper energy and EU financing, pointing to funds on offer in the US, Canada or Japan.

The EU has loosened state aid rules and plans to spend €3 billion ($3.3 billion) to boost battery production, but the sums are dwarfed by the $369 billion of green subsidies in the US Inflation Reduction Act. A European Sovereignty Fund has been mooted, but since dropped.

Industry groups say prioritization of US over EU projects by the likes of Nyrstar in gallium and germanium recovery and Jervois Cobalt in mining and refining highlights the gap.

EU has plans to reform its electricity market, but this will take time to guarantee affordable renewable energy.

In mining, repurposing some existing sites might yield critical raw materials that were considered to be waste, according to Lawrence Dechambenoit, global head of external affairs at Rio Tinto, the world’s second-largest mining company. But for lithium, he said, Europe urgently needed new mines.

Eurometaux says identified projects could meet almost 40 percent of EU supply by 2030, but a number are uncertain.