Europe’s race to decarbonise requires a secure and sustainable supply of critical minerals

By Sinead Kaufman, Chief Executive, Minerals, Rio Tinto

Europe is at a crossroads

Its ambitious green and digital transition policies depend on the sufficient supplies of critical materials such as aluminium, copper, nickel, lithium and rare earth metals. Yet Europe's resources are relatively undeveloped and the continent is dependent on imports, a vulnerable position in an increasingly competitive and unpredictable global market dominated by a few players. Take lithium, an essential component of batteries for electric vehicles, computers and mobile phones, renewable energy, among other technologies. In 2020, the World Bank predicted that global production of minerals such as lithium, graphite and cobalt will need to increase by almost 500% by 2050 to meet the growing demand for renewable energy technologies. An additional three billion tonnes of minerals and metals will be needed for wind, solar and geothermal energy, as well as for energy storage. It is clear that there are currently not enough mining projects (current or future) worldwide to meet this demand.

The question is therefore no longer whether Europe should mine its own land, but how it can do so in a sustainable and responsible way, within what timeframe and at what price.”

The draft regulation on raw materials, which the European Commission will soon be detailing, is a positive development. But proposing legislative changes alone will not be enough. European states must do more to encourage new mining projects on their territories. Adopting this perspective is all the more urgent as industry needs many years to identify, develop and exploit new deposits. This requires significant technological, human and financial investment on their part. The most ambitious countries in terms of fighting climate change, such as France and Germany, need to do more to develop these projects, which will directly supply their own industries (from automotive to digital to renewable energies, among others) with the metals they need to ultimately curb climate change.

Image credits: © Fahroni via, © Marcus Millo via
Image credits: © Fahroni via, © Marcus Millo via

Rio Tinto as a partner for an active raw materials policy

When it comes to mining, every country and every region is different. What works in a larger country like Australia and Canada won’t necessarily work in a more heavily populated region like Europe. Large-scale mining companies, like Rio Tinto, are using innovation and new technologies to continually reassess the way we work.

We have already committed to investing over US$7 billion globally in decarbonisation and sustainable mining methods. We intend to switch to renewable power to run mining operations, electrifying processing, and where possible, running electric mobile fleets. We are increasing our investment in R&D to speed up the development of technologies that will enable our customers to decarbonise. Technology and partnerships have a key role to play. And finally, we are prioritising growth capital in commodities that are essential for the drive to net zero, to focus on finding, producing and refining critical minerals through assets, technology and partnerships.

Innovation will be crucial to meeting these goals. The opportunity for us, and the mining industry, is to invest even more in technology, and in doing so create new tools for engineering effective recycling procedures, treating the leftover material from mining as a resource instead of waste; and adopting new techniques for exploration, production and recovery.

Responding to Europe’s challenges

Of course, the mining industry also has a role to play. It must clearly articulate the plans to help Europe secure critical raw materials, but also demonstrate commitments to European communities.

We are aware, as a company and as an industry, that we have not always been exemplary in the past, and we have learned from this.”

We need to continue to work harder to rebuild trust with all relevant stakeholders, to be more transparent with the communities that host our projects, with whom we live and work. All voices must be heard and listened to. It is also up to our industry to invest even more in technology and, in doing so, to create new and more environmentally friendly exploration and production techniques, tools for more efficient recycling procedures, and treat mining tailings as a resource, not solely as waste. The future of the continent’s green transition is at stake and Rio Tinto stands ready to support Europe constructively and in partnership to help drive and deliver a greener future.