The Brussels Way
The EU Raw Materials Week kicked off in Brussels this Monday, November 14. This summit, organised by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for the Internal Market, focuses on one fundamental question: how can we ensure that the European Union has enough raw materials to meet our prosperity and well-being?
Raw materials underpin our societies and economies. Grain is a raw material, which we use to bake bread and feed the population. Copper is a metal we mine, which we then use to make power cables that power households. The same goes for any product you have ever bought: a sandwich, a jar of peanut butter, a phone, laptop, fridge, car or a cargo bike.
This European meeting will discuss those raw materials that the European Union has labelled “critical”. It is about a list of metals and minerals that Europe would need in the coming decades, specifically to digitise and green the EU. This list includes 83 raw materials, many of which are mined and processed in countries outside Europe (mainly in Latin America and Asia). An interruption in the supply of these raw materials could create a shortage, preventing us from making new computer chips (needed for electronics such as laptops and smartphones) or solar panels, for example.
But does this story show the full picture? The biggest partners and projects supported by the European Commission are big extractive companies, energy giants and other industrialists, often with strong ties to the fossil fuel industry that is still pushing us into the climate abyss. It is indeed a fact that a switch to renewable energy will require many metals, such as lithium, used in batteries. But do all these metals now need to be mined globally fivefold, sometimes even tenfold, for a “green” future?
Most reports published by the European Union or resource lobbies are full of pictures of a green future, in which wind farms and solar panels in harmony with rooftop terraces and futuristic green skyscrapers create a new horizon in balance with nature. What is often not, too seldom, mentioned in these reports is the cost to humans and nature that the extraction of those materials has. Indeed, the extraction of metals is a large-scale and destructive undertaking, and greener alternatives often require up to five times more raw materials. To build an electric car, take a Tesla as an example, you soon have to dig up the surface of Times Square.
When this kind of project occurs in a rural context, whether in a protected nature reserve or near an agricultural community, the consequences are often disastrous. Metals leak through in high concentrations into the groundwater, which livestock and local people later drink. Drilling and the use of explosives in mines lead to earthquakes that shake houses up to kilometres away. We have all had construction work on our streets, haven’t we? Well, that. For years and years.
The cost to nature is also disastrous. We already cited groundwater, but also the space taken up by mining, the destruction of habitats of insects, birds, and wildlife, is massive and often irreversible. In an era where conservation and forest protection, the lungs of our planet that balance the carbon cycle, is paramount, the degradation of these ecosystems is accelerating our “green transition.”
In addition, the waste created by our electronics, as well as energy infrastructure, is of an unprecedented scale. Recycling for many components is often even less than a quarter, which means immense mountains of waste and a significant loss of raw materials, which were just termed “critical” by the European Commission.
However, it is not because mining for the raw materials for renewable energy is damaging nature that we are in a historical stalemate. This is likely what the industry lobbyists, who cosy up to the European Commission, would say if they were to accept this reality. It is the main reason why they continue to do what they do. Produce more, consume more, and increase the European economy and its material footprint to infinity. It is their mandate and their goal.
It soon becomes clear that the future they seek is not in line with what is desirable, or even feasible. If we want a truly green transition, we cannot replace every car on the road with an electric one. Not only because of the damage that would do but also because there simply aren’t enough resources on the planet we live on. The same applies to our energy generation and consumption (of which, by the way, up to 75% goes to industry, not to ordinary citizens, who often pay double for it). Green energy is desirable and much needed, but at the scale, and with continued growth in consumption, destructive and, some would argue, as dangerous as fossil energy.
Fossil fuels, whether coal, oil, paraffin or gas, are at the root of the current climate crisis. But the resources needed to replace them on today’s ever-growing scale, which risks replacing the climate crisis with an environmental and biodiversity crisis of unprecedented scale, will probably not have to undercut the climate crisis. The companies, whether they are mining up oil or lithium, are part of the same industry that profits from extraction. It is the underlying challenge that we must face in the coming years. We live together on a single globe that we must share and respect. Limits and boundaries we have not dared to face in the past decades. But time is running out.
Now the question is: What do we want in its place? In a society where we are all too often persuaded that there is no alternative, it is sometimes hard to look over the fence. Margaret Thatcher said “There Is No Alternative,” which later became abbreviated as TINA. Today, however, more and more people are saying TAMARA: “There Are Many Alternatives Ready and Available.”
If we want to green our mobility, make public transport more attractive and extensive. In the 19th century, one could take the tram from my Belgian hometown, Ghent, to Brussels, a trajectory of about 50 kilometres, and get off at any point. Today, our public transport technology is less advanced than it was then. Invest in these public sectors as it was then. Will it cost money? Yes. Will it cost more money than the social and environmental disaster we face if we don’t? One hundred times no.
If we sincerely want to green our energy, we will have to curb its overall consumption. The share of green energy we now add per annum is quasi-overtaken by additional consumption. As a result, the share of green energy is growing, but we are only becoming more green on paper. The efficiency of appliances, lamps and electronics is only part of the solution. We should also dare to ask ourselves what we do or do not need, and to what extent we need it. Soft drink and snack vending machines are good examples. With their cooling system, lighting and interface, these machines guzzle huge amounts of energy. Besides, they are on forever and ever, while in a day they are used maybe a dozen times for five seconds. Unplug that machine, and get your granola biscuit at the local convenience store!
If not only individuals but also companies and governments will take action with this logic, then we will be able to have a real impact that makes the energy transition possible. We are already seeing with the war in Ukraine and the accompanying energy crisis, unfortunately under less desirable circumstances, that more is possible than we previously thought. Energy can be saved in the social interest, excess profits can be used to accelerate transhipment and support the most vulnerable in our society so that an energy transition does not come at their expense.
Sufficiency or suffer
We live in a society where every day, again and again, we are told to consume. The radio spot in the morning, the ad on the bus stop, the advertising break during our television programme, or while scrolling or swiping on Instagram or Facebook. Although we are often under the impression that this does not affect us, in our subconscious it does, purely due to the daily repetition. Our happiness is equated with our purchases.
But we can do this differently, systematically contributing to a community that does not take more than it gives to nature. Libraries of things, for tools like drills, lawnmowers, and a ladder, can be an alternative where not everyone has to have an overflowing garage. Repair cafes give people the chance to repair a (partially) defective appliance or device, instead of buying a new one and throwing away the other, which increases waste. Strong legislation that streamlines devices and their ports (as is already happening with smartphone cables) makes the reuse of parts more effortless, as well as strong legislation that requires companies like Apple and Samsung to follow standards of how long a device should last, and how long the warranty period should be.
In addition, collecting and processing used electronics to bring the raw materials in them back into the chain can also make a fundamental difference in how much raw materials we use and need. This is also known as urban mining or urban mining. This method is currently still in its infancy when it could just be one of the best solutions. Why do we design and produce electronic devices that we don’t know what to do with later?
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil
All these initiatives exist, on a smaller or larger scale, but they are not the focus of the debate for the European Commission during this Raw Materials Week. When civil society organisation Seas At Risk submitted a request for a workshop to be organised during this week on how to make mining obsolete in the coming decades, their request was refused because “this is not in line with the European Commission’s policy on raw materials.” When something is not allowed to be discussed because it is not in line with policy, you expect to be in Moscow or Beijing. But no, this is Brussels.
The problem is known, and the cards are on the table. Unfortunately, the Commission is, again and again, pulling the joker from businesses, and industries. However, it is the bait that changes the game, the systemic change we need to scrutinise this political, economic and planetary crisis. This bait is currently seen as utopian, and unrealistic. But the numbers and harsh realities in many countries where mining has been wreaking havoc for decades do not lie: a future with more mining is a dangerous fairytale, the alternative to it, the hope for a better future in harmony with our living world.
CATAPA closely monitors the European Raw Materials Week, including in the context of the NEMO-project.
Article written by Robin Roels. Robin is a board member at Catapa vzw, a Ghent-based NGO that monitors and critiques extractivism and mining in Latin America. He previously graduated from UGent in Conflict and Development Studies and worked at the European Environmental Bureau as a policy officer on the resource politics of the green transition. Robin reads, writes and campaigns against extractivism and for systemic change and degrowth.