The impact of mining: how many raw materials do we really need?

As Europe accelerates its pursuit of transition materials, concerns arise over potential compromises to crucial environmental and social safeguards. Some are beginning to ask if the type of transition which depends on further exploitation of resources and environmental harm is really the best way forward? Is there a fairer way to achieve the green transition which benefits everyone? This interview with CATAPA’s Kim Claes helps to shine a light on some of these questions.

This interview was originally conducted in Dutch by MVO Flanders in their series of articles on raw materials.
Kim Claes was until recently strategic coordinator at CATAPA and now still active as a volunteer within the wider movement. 

What is CATAPA’s vision for mining? Can we ever do without it completely? 

Claes: “CATAPA wants to help strive for a world in which primary, large-scale, mining is no longer necessary. This is possible by focusing on drastically reducing our use of materials in an economic model that does not obsessively seek growth, and by scaling up circular strategies and recycling (urban mining). We need a radical transformation of our economic model and vision of society. A new mining boom is not the solution to achieve the green transition. We cannot ‘mine our way out’ of the climate crisis. With our current consumption and production patterns, especially here in the Global North, we would need 336 new mines for lithium, graphite, nickel and cobalt to supply the targeted electric vehicle market by 2035. That still assumes robust recycling, without which the figure would be 384 new mines. An increase of 200 per cent. Whereas, if we want to bring the global economy back within safe planetary limits, we need to scale back extraction and consumption of raw materials by a third.” 

What should European policy on mining look like? 

Claes: “European policy is now broadly based on the Net-zero Industry Act and the Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA). The key message is that the EU must assert itself on the geopolitical stage and also invest heavily in new extraction on European soil. The policy is thus still based on continuous growth and excessive consumption; with only 6% of the world’s population, we consume 25-30% of all metals produced. Instead of continually growing the pie, we would be better off dividing the pieces equally. So material reduction must be at the heart of EU policy; economic contraction to give the global South a chance of a dignified existence too. According to the Commission, besides the green transition, the digital transition, space and the military sector are also critical. Is this true? Do current plans within these sectors deliver a dignified existence for all?” 

“In our view, they rather represent the interests of big business. Especially now there is talk in the CRMA of circumventing environmental and social legislation and simplified procedures for mining projects under the guise of the ‘national interest’. We have been hearing stories like that for years from Western and Chinese mining companies in Latin America, for example, resulting in a whole slew of human rights violations and conflicts. Europe itself ten years ago was the region with the second highest number of mining waste incidents.” 

“There is little in the proposed legal texts that suggests improvement. The CRMA does not require companies to demonstrate that they are implementing robust human rights and environmental policies and procedures. There is no reference in the text to the EU Duty of Care Directive (CSDD) or ILO Convention 169 on informed consultation with indigenous peoples. There is, however, talk of reducing the deadline for a permit for a new mine by a factor of three. And in Natura 2000 areas, the world’s most extensive network of protected areas, mining is still allowed. What we need is a European raw materials policy with clear material reduction targets based on fair trade relations. This should include the highest environmental and social standards and curb the power of multinational mining companies. In this way, the EU can also become less dependent on mining in other countries.” 

“More mining in Europe is certainly not the solution, because with new mines in Europe, the rest of the world’s mines will not close. On the contrary, the supply of metals and minerals will increase and with this follows a huge demand. More mining only means more conflict. If we want to make circular alternatives to raw materials a reality, we should invest in them today, instead of investing more in primary extraction. With our purchasing power, the EU could become the world power in reusing and recycling the products and waste streams, not only of Europe, but also the rest of the world.” 

How can we drastically reduce our materials consumption? 

Claes: “First of all, by letting go of the growth paradigm. Green growth is a myth. We need to move towards an economy that revolves around wellbeing. The first, urgent step should be a European target to reduce our material footprint by 65% (you can read the EEB report here). One way to do this is to introduce sufficiency measures in sectors such as transport, industry and housing. In addition, we need to further scale up efficiency in production processes. A lot has already been done in this respect, but the gains are still too often negated because an accompanying sufficiency policy is lacking. You see this in cars, for instance: the engine is becoming more efficient, but at the same time we travel more distances and cars become heavier and bigger. Furthermore, we need to achieve a circular economy, including through strict ecodesign measures that make appliances reusable, repairable and recyclable and dramatically increase their lifespan. There is no more room for disposable products on the EU market and no more room for the wider disposable culture. The climate crisis is too urgent: on the one hand we need raw materials, but at the same time we are throwing away masses of resources due to poorly designed appliances, which are full of metals.” 

“By 2030, the new EU framework around this could lead to 132 million tonnes of primary energy savings. Efficiency, recycling and innovation are essential but insufficient on their own. Letting go of primary mining and more deployment and support of ‘urban mining’ – or secondary mining from ‘waste’ – could avoid a lot of primary mining. The concentrations of metals to be found in old mining waste or electronic waste are much higher than those in new, primary mining. It is very unfortunate that, due to a lack of positive regulation, it is still more profitable today to destroy nature and disrupt local communities with new mines, than to recover metals from waste and clean up European contaminated soils (with heavy metals). It would be a win-win for all Europeans.” 

Can we combine lower materials consumption with the energy transition? 

Claes: “It is true that the energy transition will require huge amounts of minerals. The construction of green technologies such as onshore wind turbines is 9 times more material-intensive than a gas power plant, an electric car 6 times more than a conventional one. And the production of electric vehicles (EVs), for example, accounts for 50-60% of the expected demand for minerals. But 91% of EV sales in 2021 happened in China, Europe and the US, a small fraction remained for the rest of the world. So it is also a climate justice issue. Who is this green transition for? Who is going to pay for the clean air in our cities? We need to look at things like mobility in a different way. Having your car’s engine replaced at a local garage instead of buying a new Tesla can simultaneously create more and better local jobs and reduce material consumption. But this also means less profit for automotive and mining companies. We can combine an energy transition with a decrease in material consumption, but not in the current green growth framework.” 

“Recent US research shows how things can be done differently. Put more effort into public transport and car sharing, adjust city plans to encourage that, along with cycling and walking. That’s how we can drastically reduce our metal use. So de-growth is not a story of ‘less’ quality of life, but of choosing more and better, e.g., better public transport, less air pollution, less traffic jams, more green space and time for social interactions.” 

How big is the impact of mining? 

Claes: “The reality is that mining today still equals huge craters in the landscape, disruption of communities and destruction of ecosystems. Mining waste is already the second largest waste stream in the EU, accounting for around 25-30% of the total. For one tonne of copper, we generate 110 tonnes of tailings and remove 200 tonnes of topsoil. From such waste, acids leak into the environment and the dams that are supposed to stop the tailings lead to serious incidents if they fail. In addition, primary mining accounted for 10% of global energy-related emissions in 2018. So more mining means an increase in emissions and natural damage.” 

“On the social front, we see land grabbing, violence and forced displacement of local communities. The ‘Transition Minerals Tracker‘ has documented 510 (!) allegations of human rights abuses and environmental violations related to transition metals mining between 2010 and 2022. Almost two-thirds are directed against local communities and NGOs, while the rest relate to environmental damage (mostly water rights). Even so-called good examples like Sweden’s Boliden do not have a blank track record. You can see that in the documentary ‘Arica’ among other things about the large amounts of toxic waste the company exported to Chile, resulting in dangerous levels of arsenic in the air and birth defects. Knowing that we face not only a climate crisis but also a biodiversity crisis, it should be clear that any more mining is absurd. Indeed, mining is one of the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss incl deforestation.” 

What is the role of local communities? How can we give them a real say? 

Claes: “The democratic rights of local communities facing planned mining projects must be respected. That means that they are informed, consulted and involved in the decision-making processes. And if the community’s decision is ‘no’, that decision should also be respected. The language used by the European Commission betrays a different logic: it talks about ‘facilitating social acceptance’, whereby not disposing of the mining operation does not appear to be an option. Whether it is about projects in Europe or elsewhere in the world: local communities must have a say. The future EU Corporate Sustainable Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) could be a lever for this, but even this has already been severely weakened by the mining and corporate lobby. Deepening our democracy instead of coercing people is the only way to achieve the green transition. Only then can we also guarantee a good future to future generations.”