Lithium, nickel, rare metals... In Europe, the new mining rush

Lithium, nickel, rare metals… In Europe, the new mining rush

Lithium, copper, nickel…: without these metals, it is impossible to free ourselves from fossil fuels. Aware of its enormous needs and its dependence on imports, Europe is in turn embarking on this mining rush.

Gathered under the snowflakes that fall in the heart of winter in the city center of Kiruna (Sweden), the residents observe an unusual move. Raised from the ground by immense cranes, their wooden houses are then moved on trailers tens of meters long before returning to the ground three kilometers further on.

The scene takes place above the Arctic Circle, in Lapland, in a land where the largest underground mine in Europe and the herds of long-haired reindeer raised by the Sami, the last indigenous people of the Old continent. Here, the subsoil is as unstable as it is rich and the houses risk collapsing at any moment while the public company LKAB has just discovered the largest deposit of rare earths in Europe. These metals, considered the “vitamins of the modern era”, are essential to the development of the digital industries (smartphone, artificial intelligence), defense (missiles, fighter planes) and technologies to fight against climate change ( wind power, electric vehicles).

At the end of the continent, in the north of Portugal, another metal disturbs the tranquility of the hills of Covas do Barroso. For three years, this small village has been the scene of the struggle of local farmers against a gigantic lithium mine project, essential for the batteries of electric vehicles, of which the Portuguese subsoil is full. In these mountains, as in a small village in Allier, citizens still hope to win their standoff with the mining giant who covets their land, inspired by the recent victory obtained, at the other end of Europe, in the Balkans. Two years ago, in Serbia, the inhabitants of the green Jadar valley derailed a similar project carried out by the mining multinational Rio Tinto. Everywhere in Europe, the same movement, that of returning to the mine. “No batteries without lithium, no wind turbines without rare earths, no ammunition without tungsten. » The words of Thierry Breton, European Commissioner responsible for the Internal Market, set the context. In a world where geopolitics are tense, the European Union (EU) wants to regain control of its supplies of critical metals.

Insufficient investments

And for good reason, the needs are exploding. By 2040, according to the International Energy Agency, global demand for lithium will be multiplied by 42, for graphite by 25, and for nickel by 19… Figures which are worrying in Brussels. Indeed, if the EU displays its desire to be exemplary in terms of ecology – in particular by banning the sale of thermal vehicles from 2035 – it comes up against an unfortunate observation: in the race for subsoil resources, it is distanced. “Europe attracts less than 2% of mining investments in the world,” indicates Emmanuel Hache, research director at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (Iris). Not only is our subsoil not the richest, but our mining taxation is also less attractive than in the United States and Australia where individuals own the subsoil. » As a result, no European country is among the leading producers of the key metals of the energy transition (nickel, lithium, copper, aluminum, cobalt, rare earths).

Conversely, China dominates their refining – with the exception of nickel, a metal for which Indonesia dominates the market. To reduce this dependence and prevent the risks of geopolitical shock such as a Sino-American conflict, the new European regulation on critical raw materials requires that by 2030, 10% of metals consumed in the EU must be extracted from its subsoil and that the maximum share of a metal coming from a third country is limited to 65%. With these objectives in mind, the French Geological and Mining Research Bureau (BRGM) has started a new mining inventory in France.

Environmental damage

The presence of deposits is one thing; the question of the social acceptability of their exploitation is another. In Europe, where industry is digging, environmental protests are growing. “Until now, Europeans have experienced happy globalization,” analyzes Guillaume Pitron, journalist, author of The war for rare metals (Ed. The Links that Free). We maintain our lifestyle that is greedy for mineral resources and impose its negative externalities (soil pollution, excessive water consumption) on others, at the ends of the earth. » However, if the environmental costs of the mining industry are never zero – there is no such thing as a clean mine – they depend greatly on the source of energy used to extract the ores from the earth. “Extracting lithium in Europe means on average emitting three times less CO than in Asia,” continues Guillaume Pitron. In fact, nuclear power in France or hydraulic power in Scandinavia are non-polluting energies, unlike Asian coal-fired power plants. However, this argument brandished by the European Commission in favor of “relocalization of our emissions” is not unanimous. “It is not because a lithium mine opens in Allier that another will close in the Atacama Desert in Chile,” criticizes Celia Izoard, author of The mining rush in the 21st century (Ed. Seuil). Unlimited growth is incompatible with respect for our environment. Electrifying all our transport will require huge quantities of metals and the majority of our supply will still be imported. »

Recycling in its infancy

In order to reduce its mining footprint, the EU wishes to impose a minimum threshold of 15% of recycled metals in its consumption in 2030. “Lithium responds to a new use, its recycling first requires building up a stock of used batteries to that companies are profitable,” explains Fanny Verrax, professor of ecological transition at the Lyon School of Management. Techniques for recycling electric batteries are still in their infancy, but their development is imperative if we want to justify their benefits for the environment. Otherwise, what’s the point? Digging deeper and deeper, without effective recycling, would bury the dream of a clean car.

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