Current net zero ambitions demand raw materials beyond their reserves, aggravating geopolitical tensions and endangering a sustainable future. To address this challenge, we need to see energy and resource demand as a broader systemic issue.

Andreas Budiman and Ruby Silk report.

Human societies have used Earth’s materials for centuries in their quest for development. Yet never have we depleted them so quickly and carelessly. As conversations about materials bounce between wishful circularity and apocalyptic depletion, we need a working version of the future that aligns with the real world.

The Raw realities of the green transition side-event to be held on November 14, during the EU Raw Materials Week 2022, will gather leaders across science, civil society and industry to discuss the contours of a world where net zero ambitions align with nature’s limits.

Today, rapid decarbonisation is being challenged by the intensity of its own material demands and fragile supply chains. Solar panels, wind turbines, electric transport and battery storage, require immense volumes of metals. This adds up to the EU already using 25-30% of the global metals supply while accounting for just 6% of the global population.

According to LOCOMOTION research, accelerated decarbonisation may lead to the depletion of materials such as aluminium, copper, cobalt, lithium, manganese and nickel. Ironically, mining is among the most carbon-intensive and polluting industries around. 

The ecological and social collapse driven by our demand, the COVID-19 pandemic disturbing global supply chains, and now the material side of the brutal Russian war against Ukraine reveal that we have been living on borrowed time and expose a system in crisis. The only way forward is to rethink our relations with what lies beneath our feet. And yet, the race to utilise what is left is as relentless as ever.  

Can the EU’s net-zero future fall within Earth’s limits?

30 years ago, Deng Xiaoping stressed that “the Middle East has oil; China has rare earths”. However, China has more than just resources. Since the 1970s, the country has been building its technological capacities and today owns and operates most of the rare earth mines and refineries in the world, undermining downstream competition, however the ecological and human price for its rare earths competitive advantage is high. 

The geopolitical nature of resource dependencies are coming to the surface with the ongoing war in Ukraine, unveiling deep vulnerabilities behind our dependence. Swift responses, such as EU-wide measures to address the energy crisis or two leading German automakers signing a partnership with the Canadian government on a sustainable critical mineral supply chain, remain far from systemic. 

Whether the EU can create a sustainable net-zero future aligned with nature’s limits amid global competition and geopolitical tensions remains an open question. The answer very much depends on how deep we are ready to dig and whose livelihoods we are willing to sacrifice

Closing the loop is not enough

As we try to detach from unhealthy dependencies, doing more of the same won’t address the bigger crises we face. Efficiency, recycling and innovation are essential measures but insufficient alone. Without a change in mindset, we will drown in the illusions of decoupling and green growth.

Rather than primarily thinking about where to get more resources, we should focus on making the best use of what we have. Europe can and should become home to a new resource mindset.

A new resource mindset

The shift in how we treat and use resources requires putting what humans truly care about at the heart of the economy. As the ecological crisis worsens, the change from an overconsuming and growth-oriented economy to a post-growth economy is all the more essential and inevitable. Still, we can choose whether it will be enabling and fair or torn by conflict and inequalities. 

Fortunately, visions of the post-mining future have already started to take root. Buildings and products can be built to last. Urban mining is already contributing to the supply of recovered materials. We continue to learn how to design things better, which means of transport make real sense and why access often beats ownership.

To stay within planetary boundaries and move towards a doughnut economy, we need an expansion of thinking beyond sectoral silos that embraces the connections between material consumption, energy transition, climate action and human well-being. Together with many other factors, they form a complex web where every node matters. 

Setting targets to guide action

There are reasons why a target on raw materials would accelerate the move toward circular societies.  For example, if mining is to take place to build up the first stocks of materials for one generation of low-carbon technologies, then the extraction for these materials should also have a timeline and become gradually more expensive so that it can be phased out. By setting official binding targets similar to those that exist for carbon emissions, countries can decrease their material footprints by making extraction of primary resources more expensive and heavily subsidising recycling, repair, reuse and substitution efforts. 

This would open up the business case to shift toward the use of secondary raw materials. Cities, in order to meet their binding reduction targets would be incentivised to shift their urban plans to accommodate more cycling, walking, and public transportation and car-sharing, and essentially organise the move away from private vehicle use. Most of the demand for critical raw materials, after all, is organised around one sector: electric car production.

Every material is unique in terms of its availability, safety, and logistics. We need a European network of raw materials agencies to build a shared understanding of strategically important raw materials and our options in each case. 

Modelling at this level of detail is possible thanks to next-generation integrated assessment models such as WILIAM, unlocking new opportunities for better-informed and more democratic policy development.By modelling scenarios for the future and comparing options such as the Green New Deal and post-growth economy, we can see how different policies on materials may impact other sectors, different sustainability goals, and regions, providing an essential foundation for the much-needed material footprint reduction targets.

“Setting a binding EU material footprint reduction target of 60% by 2050 is in no way an aspirational ideal. It is a unique tool to unite action and steer sustainability transitions, addressing the double-edged sword dilemma of rapid decarbonisation without skyrocketing pollution and furthering ecological collapse”.

Diego Marin, Policy Officer for Environmental Justice at EEB.

The EU Critical Raw materials act, with its current focus on trade and diversification, will need to expand on enabling the state’s leading role in materials policy. Responsible private investment from mining to refining, processing, and recycling will need to be facilitated to increase supply chain resilience and support more vibrant markets while establishing and protecting the no-go areas.

No effort will prove sustainable without addressing the grave realities of green extractivism. Therefore, those efforts should be paired with radical transparency, include Free, Prior and Informed Consent, and knowledge sharing on the impacts of every technology and every project.

From mythology to real life

While green mining remains a myth, we need to ensure more strict due diligence that would significantly lower social and environmental risks and allow for meaningful participation of local people. Every person and every community should have the right to say no to avoid the creation of sacrifice zones for the energy transition.

We might not get past mining for raw materials immediately, but we can start already to craft that vision to get past green extractivism, pollution, displacement and biodiversity destruction. The just and green transition can only be enabled by embracing responsibility and accountability for the impacts of our choices and treating resources as commons. We can either wait for the next crisis to force us to react, or we can decide to create resilient economies resistant to future shocks. 

Now, it is time to put this knowledge into use.

Register for the “Raw realities of the green transition” to join the democratic dialogue on the future of raw materials in Europe. Visit the LOCOMOTION website to learn more about how models can be a foundation for a truly green and just transition.

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