The consensus in Europe is broader than ever: Ever since Vladimir Putin’s army invaded Ukraine, the EU countries have wanted to get away from Russian oil and gas as quickly as possible – the cheap drug whose cold turkey threatens to plunge the economy into recession. In the short term, there is no way around alternative gas import routes. In the medium term, however, accelerating the green energy transition is the obvious solution. Renewable energies, especially solar and wind energy, not only help the overheated climate. They also make us independent of energy imports.
Reducing this dependency is particularly challenging in the steel, chemical, cement and aluminum industries: They often cannot convert their processes to electricity because they need gas to generate very high temperatures or as a material input in production. Alternatives such as green hydrogen are still very expensive.
However, we not only have to achieve strategic independence as quickly as possible in the energy sector, but also in the medium term for critical raw materials: for almost all raw materials indispensable for the green transition, Europe is similarly dependent on imports from countries with questionable human rights and environmental protection situations as it is for fossil energies. Lockdown-related supply bottlenecks, for example for solar modules from China, show our vulnerability. Without lithium from Chile, cobalt from Congo and rare earths from China, there would be no batteries for electric cars.
This starting position must not discourage us. There have already been successes: the cheapest way to generate electricity is with sun and wind. This should be an incentive to rapidly expand all available technologies for electricity from wind, sun and hydropower and to accelerate innovations for the development of a hydrogen economy.
At the same time, the aim must be to reorganize the supply of raw materials: As with fossil energies, the main aim is to reduce consumption and use them more efficiently. It must also be possible to recycle raw materials in much larger quantities – and also to mine them in Europe in the future.
The tasks facing politics, companies and societies are enormous. This also applies to the investments that will be necessary in this decade for the climate-friendly restructuring of the economy. However, with the enormous challenges come immense opportunities. The right investments will strengthen Europe as a location for innovation and help to defend our technological lead in the field of green technologies and thus strengthen our economy in global competition. To do this, Europe must finally think big and also think strategically.
The goal of climate neutrality is anchored in EU law. Nevertheless, there is often a lack of ambition on the part of European and national politicians to be the first continent to actually achieve climate change – and to cooperate closely with the neighboring continent of Africa. After all, all of our climate goals will go up in smoke if Africa’s increasing energy needs are covered with fossil fuels instead of using the continent’s abundance of sun and wind with the latest technology, for example to produce large quantities of green hydrogen.
We are not starting from scratch: In Sweden, for example, the European Investment Bank is supporting a project with H2 Green Steel to produce almost CO2-neutral steel, based on an 800 megawatt electrolyser for the production of green hydrogen. In Puertollano, Spain, we are supporting a large-scale hydrogen project by the energy supplier Iberdrola for fertilizer production.
As far as the scarcity of raw materials is concerned, the EU Commission has long had a list of 30 critical raw materials such as cobalt, lithium and bauxite. Financing of an innovative aluminum recycling plant in Greece is currently being worked on in order to become less dependent on bauxite imports. We need a lot more of all these initiatives. At the same time, the pace of planning and implementation of the projects must be increased in order to successfully master the transformation of our economy.
However, we will only be able to free ourselves from our dependence on raw material supplier countries, which are rightly criticized, if we are honest about it. As the war in Ukraine has made abundantly clear, the fact that Europe has outsourced almost all mining activities is taking its toll. In the past few decades, we would rather have people on other continents deal with dirt and waste land than ourselves.
If we want to drive forward the green transformation of European industry with foresight, we must give priority to supporting raw materials projects in countries that share our values of democracy and human rights. Poorer countries need our support to introduce higher environmental and occupational safety standards. To do this, we must be more willing to transfer technology than we are today.
However, foresight, also with regard to our strategic autonomy in the green transformation, means not least that we should also mine copper, nickel, lithium and bauxite in Europe. Parts of mining will have to return to Europe. It is often said that it takes years for a mining project to be planned, approved and implemented.
An argument that would only be persuasive if Putin’s war remained a brief episode, after which life returned to normal. But that is an illusion! Europe must be prepared for the fact that an aggressive Russia will be permanently absent as a supplier of energy and raw materials – and that the conflicts between the West and China will increase rather than decrease.
Procrastination and hesitation would be completely wrong. The sooner Europe takes the challenges of the turning point seriously, the faster we can overcome the energy crisis. This is the prerequisite for Europe remaining an important industrial location. The first projects show that new raw material mines are possible in Europe: The Finnish company Keliber, for example, wants to produce battery-capable lithium and mine the raw material for it in Finland. Many battery raw materials are even stored in Europe’s coal regions, which is also an opportunity for new jobs for old areas.
Mining does not always have to come across as land-consuming opencast mining. There is an opportunity to develop technologies that enable environmentally compatible mining. Europe could also set new standards for environmentally friendly raw material extraction – worldwide, so that environmental destruction and child labor can also end in other parts of the world. The renewable sector is also the right example for this. The development of wind and solar technologies not only contributes significantly to better air quality, it also helps to reduce imports of gas and coal from countries like Russia.