Even faster than originally intended, Europe wants to switch to producing its own renewable energy. This is the response of European politics to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. European Commissioner Frans Timmermans, responsible for the climate transition is unequivocal in his analysis: “Things have changed. Things have changed radically.”
Yet the idea that by developing our own sustainable economy, Europe will become more independent from foreign countries is overly simplistic. Making our economy more sustainable primarily means electrifying our industry and the hundreds of millions of cars that drive around Europe. To be able to generate the enormous amounts of sustainable electricity that this requires, vast quantities of metals is also needed. In all shapes and sizes. From copper for energy grids, lithium and nickel for batteries, to the exotic rare earth metals that are found in small quantities in virtually every electrical device.
It is already predicted that the global production of materials like lithium will have to increase by a factor of forty within twenty years to be able to produce the batteries needed to meet the climate targets. In order to accelerate the green transition, mining for metals needs to be increased significantly.
As with gas from Russia, Europe must also import almost all of its precious metals to meet its own needs. Lithium does not come from Russia. And it is not Russia, but the West’s other challenger, China, that in recent years has become the monopolist where the extraction of rare earth metals is concerned.
That said, Russia does supply half of the nickel that Europe uses. As well as almost all of the platinum-like metal palladium. There are plenty of other producers to be found for nickel and copper. Russia ‘only’ has a global market share of ten percent. Nevertheless, because of the war, nickel prices are already shooting through the roof.
“Of course, if Russia drops out of the market, then that would be unfortunate,” says Leiden University professor Arnold Tukker about the import of metals, “but it’s not like in the 1970s when suddenly ninety percent of oil imports were dropped.” Tukker is a professor of Industrial Ecology and is an expert in the efficient use of raw materials.
“That we have a materials problem for the energy transition, is something we are well aware of,” he states. Even in a sustainable economy, Europe cannot go it alone. The days of autarky, when countries could keep a society going without foreign trade, are well and truly over. But there is a strategic lesson to be learned from the Ukraine war that is relevant when it comes to preventing new dependencies in a sustainable economy: spread the risk!
The good news is that the materials are basically available in sufficient supply. You just need to build the mines to mine them. This is something that has not happened enough to date in the Western world, is his analysis. Tukker cites China as an example. There, the production of the metals needed for a sustainable economy has skyrocketed. Using old-fashioned five-year plans and numerous new mines. He calls on politicians to do the same in our way: be clear about what the transition plans are for the future. Then companies will have certainty and will be able to invest.
It remains to be seen whether politicians can deliver on the promise of accelerated greening. The chances seem quite high that we will hit physical limits of what is feasible if we fail to expand mining fast enough. While Europe is going into overdrive with regained self-confidence, the question of how feasible accelerated greening actually is has been relegated to the background for the time being.
It seems to have been forgotten that it was only two months ago that the European Commission gave natural gas the status of a ‘transitional technology.’ Member states that close down coal-fired power plants would be allowed to give new gas power plants a green stamp. After all, a coal-fired power plant emits less CO2 than a gas one does. This would quickly cut down on CO2 emissions while gaining the time needed to make the step towards becoming genuinely greener.
That ‘transitional gas’ would have come from Russia, of course. Now Europe is frantically looking for new suppliers. “We can’t depend on Russian gas, what with the conditions that come with it,” Timmermans explains.
But even he must acknowledge that polluting coal-fired power plants might continue to run longer than they were supposed to. Hence, the more ‘accelerated greening’ may prove to be a more sluggish decline as fas as CO2 emissions are concerned.
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