EU’s new critical raw materials act is a recipe for conflict
Last week, the European Commission unveiled the Critical Raw Materials Act to reduce its dependence on third countries for key raw materials deemed indispensable for the green and digital transitions.
The proposed legislation seems to be a first step in trying to decouple the EU from its dependencies on third countries for critical and strategic raw materials. However, the continent will never be fully autonomous because of its limited reserves.
This implies multiple hurdles, namely social unrest, and potential conflict risks. As a global peace-building organization (Search for Common Ground) and a research centre (IPIS), we know how important it is to recognize and understand conflict dynamics in communities.
The story of climate change is a familiar one. The need for immediate action is clear. But an expedited transition to a low-carbon economy, bears its own risk.
Solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicle batteries and other energy technologies require minerals including aluminum, cobalt and lithium. To meet the growing demand for clean energy technology, mining for green energy minerals will accelerate exponentially.
According to the latest list of critical raw materials published in 2020 by the European Commission, the EU is 71 percent dependent on phosphorus extracted in Kazakhstan, 68 percent on cobalt in Guinea, and it takes 68 percent of cobalt extracted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The latter has suffered from decades of conflicts, including around extractive resources. An estimated 15-30 percent of the DRC’s cobalt is mined by artisanal and small-scale miners, but almost all the territory in the DRC with known cobalt reserves is concessioned for industrial mining.
A breeding ground for conflicts between small-scale and large-scale miners. That being said, our Congolese colleagues confirm that the country does not lack good mineral resource policies. It’s the application that poses problems.
And that’s where peace-building organisations and other NGOs can step in: support countries in building capacity for sound resource governance and press for transparency and accountability among companies and governments.
With the CRM Act, the EU lays down its ambition of becoming a key player in the raw materials value chains, from extraction to recycling. Furthermore, the act sets out to forge "strategic partnerships" with third countries and international partners. But the EU should consider specific endorsements to ensure that the CRM Act’s ambitions match the Sustainable Development Goals.
In other words, mining should take place without new conflicts arising. Mining practices should improve the wellbeing of local communities. These strategic partnerships should be an opportunity for inclusive development.
If the EU wants to move forward with this plan, there are still numerous obstacles to overcome. Mineral extraction is often associated with violence, poor working conditions, conflicts over water management, environmental harm, health hazards — the list is long.
So no wonder that in a lot of European countries there tends to be local resistance to mining projects. Lithium extraction projects in Portugal for instance, have been dragged out for over a decade due to environmental concerns from the local population and NGOs. It is still unclear how the EU plans to deal with this resistance, especially since the permitting process falls within the exclusive competence of the member states.
Mining will always have costs, whether it is in Europe or beyond. But if human rights, transparency, and sustainable governance are prioritised in efforts to scale up renewable energy, a conflict-free mineral supply chain could be achieved. Moreover, responsible behaviour by companies operating in conflict-affected regions can play a powerful and positive socio-economic role.
The EU should systematically apply a conflict-sensitive approach, preventing the emergence, re-emergence or escalation of violent conflict. An approach that seeks to build sustainable peace and strengthen people’s ability to resolve disputes, through consensus building, mediation, and conflict resolution. This is a long-term approach, but it will be the most durable, also for Europe’s strategic position.