As the U.S. explores its options when it comes to diversifying our critical minerals supply chains away from China in the wake of COVID-19, Europe is coming to grips with its own mineral supply challenges.
According to European metals association Eurometaux, the region “has reached a critical fork in the road,” as it grapples with addressing its largely hollowed-out production capacity against the backdrop of surging critical materials needs.
In an attempt to address current and future challenges, the European Commission earlier this month released its Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials, and an updated version of its List of Critical Raw Materials. The EU body also unveiled a foresight study on critical raw materials for strategic technologies and sectors from the 2030 and 2050 perspectives.
As Andy Home, senior metals columnist for Reuters, writes in a column for the news agency, Europe’s strategy — and the underlying critical raw materials list — is similar to that of the United States, and “largely boils down to (…) find, mine, refine and recycle.”
“However, as the United States is already learning with rare earths, building an entire supply chain from scratch is a tricky business.”
Home uses lithium, newly added to the 2020 List of Critical Raw Materials, as an example, arguing that while the EU Commission estimates that by 2025, 80% of Europe’s lithium demand could be supplied from European sources, this target seems “highly ambitious given finding and mining the lithium is the (relatively) easy part. Refining it into chemical form and then making lithium-ion batteries is the hard part and the technical expertise currently resides in Asia, particularly China.”
In order to address this challenge for lithium and other critical materials, strategic partnerships with friendly trading partners will have to be leveraged, and the EU has made clear that in this context, it will be looking primarily to Canada and Australia.
The news of Europe shifting its supply chain overhaul into high gear should serve as another reminder for U.S. policy makers that “we can’t admire the problem any longer” because “we don’t have the luxury of time.”
Partisanship in a highly contentious election year may make consensus on these issues even more challenging — but for the sake of our national security and economic wellbeing, prioritizing the re-shoring and securing of our critical mineral supply chains cannot wait.