Two MEPs Hildegarde Bentele from the European People’s Party Group and Henrike Hahn, deputy spokesperson of the German Greens disagree about the direction of the debate on Critical Raw Materials
Yes, let us consider sustainable mining
The worldwide demands of ecological – and digital – transition require ever more critical raw materials and put our supply chains under even greater pressure. Just think of it. The production and servicing of electrolysers for European green hydrogen alone will need 110% of the world’s annual iridium supply. Electric cars need six times more critical raw materials than the combustion engine. This means high demand – and high dependence –on just a few non-EU countries. The solution? Closing material loops and yes, sustainable mining are vital.
Closing material loops is key. That means building up secondary markets, material reuse, product design, substitution, waste management and recycling. However, “recycling will not [provide]
sufficient material in the short-to-mid-term to supply emerging applications that are needed for greening the economy. […]. The supply of primary materials will remain crucial. Therefore, sustainable mining needs to be promoted.”
This is the stark conclusion arrived at in a study commissioned by Henrike Hahn of the Greens. Whether we like or not, we need sustainable mining.
I pledge to embrace this challenge rather than turn a blind eye to the continuing risks of outsourcing them to third countries that are associated with lower environmental and social standards and higher emissions rate as well as being subject to severe disruption risks triggered by geopolitical tensions, export restrictions or the individual demands of the specific country involved. Mandatory due diligence requirements will help, but my experience as a diplomat and DEVE vice-coordinator tell me that these changes are tricky to implement and control onsite.
I’m the last person to push for mining in protected areas, but we cannot ignore the irrefutable fact that relevant deposits are located in protected areas which themselves are subject to constant expansion. Therefore, it is for good reasons that the Natura 2000 legislation foresees a possibility for economic activities under strict conditions. Let us examine how the new German government’s clear target of 2% land-use for wind power and its strong commitment to accelerate energy and public transport infrastructure legitimated by public interest and public security allows for exceptions from species protection.
I strongly believe in pragmatism: The EU can be a role model for sustainable mining with inclusive project planning, early information/participation, transparent and timely permissions, adequate financing, high environmental, social and safety standards, advanced technologies and a balanced approach to renaturation.
Mining the Green way
Europe needs Critical Raw Materials (CRM) for the transition to a climate-neutral economy but mining in general poses a threat to local communities and biodiversity.
Industrial mining and ore-processing are ranked as the world’s second worst pollution problem, just after used lead-acid battery recycling. They lead to a loss of vegetation, often resulting in mass deforestation, loss of land fertility and productivity, and massive erosion. Mining also causes hydric stress and can lead to the depletion or pollution of surface water bodies. A general call for more mining without regard to these severe environmental damages is therefore wrong.
Despite our Greens/EFA arguments, the European Parliament has recently missed the opportunity to clearly commit to calling a halt to mining in Natura 2000 and related protected areas while maintaining a balanced approach towards the increased need of CRM.
Next to the environmental aspects, there are also important geopolitical, social and human rights issues associated with mining that need to be highlighted more in the public debate.
In many cases, minerals are extracted without proper worker protection. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s cobalt mines, many workers excavate without any protective equipment and suffer from pulmonary and skin diseases as a consequence. Protecting and strengthening human rights standards is absolutely crucial.
I also strongly support the involvement of local authorities and the right of local communities to effectively participate in determining mining permits.
Finally, the strong concentration of mining and processing of CRM in only a few countries challenges Europe’s strategic autonomy.
For all these reasons, we need long-term solutions in Europe. The EU has to implement a Green Deal that protects climate and environment by focusing on circular economy, substitution, recycling, resource conservation and resource efficiency instead of exploiting and endangering nature reserves in an unreflected way. Mining must be sustainable, and Natura 2000 and protected areas should be free of mining.