Europe’s scramble for minerals comes home

The European Commission risks causing an explosion in new mining projects across the bloc as part of its raw materials strategy, with serious environmental consequences.

Diego Francesco Marin explains why Europeans are fighting for their right to say no.

Mining is known for being one of the most polluting industries in the world. Extraction and primary processing of metals and minerals are responsible for a quarter of global carbon emissions. Together with agriculture, these industries represent up to 90% of global biodiversity loss. So why would the European Union’s efforts to reach climate neutrality include investments in this highly polluting sector?

The amount of metals and minerals that are considered necessary for the energy transition is massive. Critical raw materials are needed to produce batteries which can be used in electric vehicles, and renewable energy technology. As the EU moves forward with its efforts to reach climate neutrality, metals and minerals will continue to play an important role.

Hoping to secure the future supply chain for building wind turbines and the like, the European Commission released its action plan on critical raw materials last week. The EU executive proposes actions to reduce Europe’s dependency on third countries by improving resource efficiency and promoting ‘responsible’ sourcing worldwide.

For e-car batteries and energy storage alone, Europe will, for instance, need up to 18 times more lithium by 2030 and up to 60 times more by 2050.

Maroš Šefčovič, European Commission vice president for Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight.

This comes as no surprise to some researchers, such as those involved in LOCOMOTION, which models and analyses the various pathways towards a sustainable future, including renewable energy. “The European Commission seems to have done the maths and discovered what we at LOCOMOTION already knew: if all the world’s cars become electric by 2050 and recycling rates remain low there will not be enough lithium,” observes Margarita Mediavilla, a member of the Research Group on Energy, Economy and System Dynamics at the University of Valladolid, which is leading the LOCOMOTION project.

This growing relative scarcity, combined with global political volatility, has led the EU to seek greater supply security. Since the escalation of trade conflicts between China and the United States, as well as the current coronavirus pandemic, there is now a noticeable push for more ‘insourcing’.

This involves bringing back the sort of extraction that EU countries have for decades been happy to outsource, often because it was too harmful and controversial at home – similarly to how France replaced all 200 uranium mines on French soil by opening vast and deadly mines in places such as Niger.

This may be where the European Commission is heading towards with its action plan on raw materials, environmentalists fear. As Europe tries to close the loop on the supply of materials from third countries, the risk is that it will also inevitably open the door to mining at home – something that has already rung alarm bells in resource-rich countries such as Finland, Spain and Portugal.

What is happening today is nothing less than a massive PR campaign to sell the idea that mining is not only necessary but it can also be sustainable,” said Nick Meynen, a policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). “What is overlooked or flatly denied is the evidence that more mining leads to more fighting and that we need to reduce drastically our impact on the planet while focusing on sustainability and wellbeing.”

“If green energy is based on the aggressive pollution of mining and wastes precious minerals after a single use it is not sustainable,” echoes Mediavilla. “The only truly sustainable technology is 100% renewable energies, coupled with almost 100% recycling of minerals,”

Sustainability and ‘green mining’

The Commission is hoping to increase public acceptance of its strategy by arguing that resource extraction is necessary to meet climate goals and by promoting a narrative that associates sustainability with mining.

This is highly problematic according to environmenalists. “Despite technological advancements, sustainability is not a given in an industry whose main business strategy is to destroy and destroy more,” Meynen tells us.

An open-pit lithium mine. Source

The mining industry is a high-risk industry with shareholders continuously pushing to cut costs and this has the potential to come at the expense of the environment. Atacama, Chile provides a cautionary tale. There, the environmentally damaging a cheap and water-intensive method of obtaining lithium in this extremely arid region causes aquifers to deplete, affecting the water balance and leading to a continuing outcry among local communities.

The environmental effects of new or emergent mining and processing technologies are under-explored, while projects using these technologies are already being developed and implemented at a large scale. Examples of unknown or limited understanding of impacts include the effects related to bioleaching, deep-sea mining, but also in lithium mining.

There are currently knowledge gaps on socio-environmental impacts of lithium mining, and knowledge asymmetries between companies, governance bodies and local communities. To mitigate these disparities, the input from NGOs, academia, and local communities needs to be at the forefront of the life cycle analysis of mines, according to Meynen.

Transparency, democracy and the right to say no

After decades of strategically outsourcing the most polluting mining activities to countries outside the EU, the new buzzword is ‘insourcing.’ This would be a reversal from the ‘Lawrence Summers’ Principle‘, which was expressed in a leaked memo by the then chief economist of the World Bank in 1991:

“Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Least Developed Countries]? […] A given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”

Crazy as it sounds, Summers’ Principle is for the most part today’s business as usual – and business is unlikely to change by simply relocating mining projects closer to home. The EEB has warned about the risk of deepening environmental racism and social inequality within Europe itself. “Mines are not going to be built in Paris, Berlin or Madrid – projects will target protected areas near mountains and rivers on which the lives of people and wildlife depend,” said Meynen.  

This is already happening – in some cases, even with the support of the European Commission. In Caceres, a city in western Spain, an EU-backed mining project plans to extract lithium from an open pit mine just 800m from the historic centre, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site frequently visited by tourists.

Protests in Caceres, 2018. Source

In Caceres, like in other communities, people are mobilising and demanding to be heard. Local groups are demanding the right to self-determination, the right to remain in their territories without worrying about displacement through future development projects, the nature of their livelihoods, and the right to clean water, air and soil. Other cases in Europe include Talvivaara, where a nickel mine discharged toxic effluents and heavy metals into nearby lakes.

And again the red mud disaster in Kolontar-Devecser, Hungary that led to the deaths of 10 people and the destruction of 150 homes in what was considered one of the greatest ecological catastrophes in the country. 

Protest in Talvivaara, Finland 2012. Source

The Commission’s action plan does not mention how local communities will be involved in the decision-making process. “It is important for the Commission to democratise decision making and to give the right to local communities to say no to mining projects if they wish to do so,” said Meynen.

“This does not mean for the Commission to merely consult ‘stakeholders’ with a future that had already been decided before they get to the negotiating table. We want a Free Prior and Informed Consent-like mechanism, like in the United Nations when people can veto government projects in their area,” he concluded.

A just transition is a post-extractive transition

The use of critical raw materials in cleaner technologies is without a doubt necessary to reach carbon neutrality. But the EEB and its network have stressed that the key question is about how we as a society can get there. 

The issues that mining regions face in the global south offer a glimpse of what increased mining in Europe could be like. Frontline communities experience a multitude of issues across different modes of extraction such as displacement, internal and external conflict – including threats and killings of land defenders and social leaders – eroded livelihoods, contaminated air, soil and water, lack of access to arable land and freshwater, and severe health impacts. 

For its part, the Commission insists that environmental laws and institutions are of a higher standard and that it would promote sustainable and responsible mining practices and transparency.

But there is reason to be cautious. Even global leaders in environmental standards have trouble keeping their commitment. Canada, for example, a self-proclaimed global leader in climate action, has 61 reported cases in the Environmental Justice Atlas with close to 30% of those cases involving the mining industry.

There is a lot of room for error in the next 10 years if Europe continues its appetite for growth beyond ecological limits, said Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, a policy officer for resource efficiency at the EEB.

“Instead of focusing on mining as a dominant strategy, emphasis should be given to circular efforts to produce batteries, solar panels and so on. This means increasing recycling, reuse and durability, using secondary raw materials, and waste reprocessing. The action plan, fortunately, leaves this door of opportunity open,” Schweitzer clarifies.

Accountability is also a word that both Schweitzer and Meynen mention a lot. “Companies must be held accountable for substandard labour conditions and environmental degradation they cause,” Meynen said while suggesting the development of an EU due diligence directive.

Stuck between being a global leader in environmental policy and unrealistic, endless consumption, the future of the EU legacy remains in the balance. Only time will tell whether politicians decide to listen more to the people that will be the most affected by mining.

More Information on the Environmental Justice Atlas

The open-access Environmental Justice Atlas ( started at ICTA-UAB (Barcelona) in 2011 under a previous EU-funded project, EJOLT – in which the EEB was a full partner. It had reached 3,155 entries of ecological conflicts by May 2020. Each entry contains a description, sources of information, and many codified variables. It is directed by Leah Temper and J Martinez-Alier, coordinated by Daniela Del Bene, and it has counted on the contributions of hundreds of collaborators. The authors of the peer-reviewed article are among the main ones: Arnim Scheidel, Daniela Del Bene, Juan Liu, Grettel Navas, Sara Mingorría, Federico Demaria, Sofía Avila, Brototi Roy, Irmak Ertör, Leah Temper and Joan Martinez-Alier.