17 March 2021
Critical raw materials: digging into a sustainable future?

Critical raw materials: digging into a sustainable future?

Plenary session of the European Committee of the Regions

Raw materials are used to produce a wide range of goods and applications used in our everyday life and form a strong element of Europe's industrial basis. At least 30 million jobs Europe-wide depend on the availability of raw materials. In particular, critical raw materials – metals, minerals and natural materials – are of economic and strategic importance for key and future-oriented industries, such as digital and communication technologies, renewable energies and e-mobility, the steel sector and healthcare. However, they have a high supply risk due to the import dependence from third countries, which are often located in unstable parts of the world. At the same time, the demand for (critical) raw materials is increasing worldwide and expected to double by 2050 in the EU, as outlined in the New Industrial Strategy for Europe.  


COVID-19: When raw materials become rare

Critical raw materials have for a long time been under discussion at EU level, often in relation to persisting trade tensions. However, they found their way back to the very top of the agenda only recently. The coronavirus pandemic confronted the general public with a situation in which supply chains were put under severe pressure or entirely disrupted, putting a complete halt to the delivery of essential products and services. 

An active and more strategic European industrial policy that links research and development with production towards a strong value chain is therefore more needed than ever. If sustainability will, as Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič puts it, be the “key selling point in the near future", how can Europe best champion sustainable but competitive raw materials supply in future, and make the economic fabric of its regions, including small and medium enterprises, fit for this major challenge?


Under the surface, but part of the bigger picture

Critical raw materials will play a role in enabling the recovery from the pandemic, and are set to drive the transition to a green and digital economy. Future digital technologies as well as those required for making the Green Deal happen, such as solar panels, wind turbines and electric batteries are highly resource-intensive. The EU's two main goals for the coming years cannot be reached without a safe and sustainable supply of critical raw materials, and this is why we need to shift our thinking. 

On the one hand, Europe needs to strengthen its domestic supply through both the development of mining for primary critical raw materials and enhanced circularity to obtain secondary critical raw materials. Despite common assumptions, Europe has many resources and a large potential of diversified critical raw materials to explore. Europe still mines, for instance, more than 42 different metals and minerals. On the other hand, given the growing demand for critical raw materials, the EU must focus on forging sustainable strategic partnerships with resource-rich third countries by integrating them more closely into European value chains.

The European Commission's raw materials strategy, presented in September last year, is a first step to taking up the challenge. It proposed a 10-point action plan to make the EU's raw materials supply more secure and sustainable and includes, among other things, the establishment of a European Raw Materials Alliance, which is open to regions as well as industry, research, Member States and civil society.

With a particular focus on former and current European coal mining regions – such as in Germany, Poland or Spain – the action plan also proposes to strengthen domestic sourcing of raw materials and, to this end, intends to roll out sustainable mining and processing projects over the coming years.


Building back better and digging at home?

Securing a competitive and environmentally friendly supply of raw materials and reducing the dependence on critical raw materials through more efficient use of resources, recycling, sustainable products and innovation is also a key priority for regions across Europe.

“Domestic extraction of raw materials in the EU should be supported politically and financially, and procurement from third countries should be diversified. Environmental and social standards, but also the traceability of supply and retail chains, must be secured through international agreements at WTO level“ ,  emphasises PES member Isolde Ries, who is taking the lead on the Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials in the European Committee of the Regions. "These building blocks are vital both to European industry and the millions of jobs that depend on it, and to the successful implementation of the European Green Deal.“

Local and regional authorities are already playing a key role in shifting critical raw materials towards sustainability. They are, for example, responsible for licensing and oversight with regard to raw materials and industrial projects. Likewise, the value creation and employment associated with the extraction of raw materials take place at local level – and so do research and development projects, socially responsible procurement and innovative recycling.

As Vice-President of the Parliament of Saarland – one of the German regions with a strong mining tradition – Isolde Ries also points to building on the know-how and experience of current and former mining regions extracting raw materials for the future: “It is certainly not easy to restart underground or open-cast raw materials extraction today, as there is growing resistance among the local population. We need to increase public acceptance through education and information. At the same time, adverse effects on the environment must be avoided or minimised as far as possible.“ Regions count on Europe's help here.


A challenging year head

Looking ahead, 2021 promises to be an important year as EU efforts on critical raw materials kick off on many fronts. As Dan Nica MEP, S&D spokesperson on industry and research, rightly underlined: “The EU's industrial policy must create European capacity in strategic areas. […] We insist on investing in innovation. Horizon Europe, the world's most ambitious research programme, will be crucial.“

Regions will need to make their voice heard in the European Raw Materials Alliance to promote know-how and investment. To accelerate the deployment of new projects in line with the objectives of the Green Deal, the Horizon Europe research programme needs to come up with innovative solutions that reduce the environmental impacts of raw material extraction. Regional efforts to strengthen the European supply of raw materials will finally also have to build on existing instruments – such as the Just Transition Mechanism and the European skills agenda.

Progressive cities and regions and progressive forces in the European Parliament will make sure that this process goes hand in hand with promoting more responsible sourcing in third countries and that, also from under the earth, the Green Deal finds a way to flourish.