The Critical Raw Materials Act: an alternative to global dependencies?

The European Commission aims to improve recyclability and sustainability in the handling of critical raw materials in the EU and in third countries. Its Critical Raw Material Act makes few concrete suggestions as to how resources could be conserved, and it remains just as vague on the question of how a genuine circular economy can be created and a partnership with resource-rich countries made sustainable, however.

Europe’s dependence on critical raw materials has been subject of heated debates for years and presents the EU with geopolitical challenges. In the spring, the European Commission introduced the Critical Raw Materials Act, a draft law aimed at diversifying the import of critical raw materials and strengthening local supplies. This is meant to improve the resilience of EU supply chains and address the increasing demand for raw materials to achieve climate neutrality in the EU.

Less dependence on raw material imports

The Critical Raw Materials Act is designed to significantly increase processing capacities and the extraction of critical raw materials within the EU. An expansion of domestic mining achieved by accelerating the approval process is expected to provide greater independence from imports and secure a tenth of the supply by 2030. However, mining in the EU already causes environmental problems as it is, and often meets with local resistance. In northern Sweden, the indigenous Sámi have been fighting for years against the expansion of a nickel mine that would endanger their environment. In the negotiations on the law, we Greens will therefore insist that accelerated planning does not lead to human rights and environmental standards being disregarded.

Mining can never be completely sustainable. Only if we curb raw material extraction in the long term can we minimize its damage to people and the environment. The Commission also wants to improve the recyclability and sustainability of critical raw materials in the EU and in third countries, but its current proposal is insufficient. Strict and strictly enforced environmental and social standards are needed for mining both in the EU and in third countries, as well as measures to reduce demand in order to minimize pressure on the sector. The current text only contains imprecise suggestions on the topic of recycling, however. Concrete measures to strengthen an actual circular economy are missing to date. This despite the fact that we are currently working on many EU laws to conserve resources – through sustainable product design, the right to repair and mandatory recycling. These are important steps on the way to a circular economy that also help reduce international dependencies.

Partnerships on an equal footing

The EU wants to use the new law on critical raw materials to expand and diversify its cooperation with international partners. Currently, the EU often imports more than 90 percent of a critical raw material from just one third country. It aims to reduce this share to 65 percent by 2030. To this purpose, the EU wants to expand its network of strategic partnerships with resource-rich countries. In order to present itself as a genuine alternative to trading partners such as China, the European Union will have to focus credibly on economic and social development in the partner countries, as well as on high social and environmental standards for the extraction. Only then can the envisaged «win-win partnerships» materialize and function.

As part of these partnerships, the EU must therefore promote production and processing capacities within the resource-rich partner countries, for example by investing in the local manufacturing and semiconductor industries and by strengthening knowledge and technology transfer. This is the greatest weakness of the Commission’s legislative proposal as it contains hardly any concrete measures to shape these partnerships. In the negotiations on the CRMA, I am working to ensure that clear rules will be set for the design of raw material partnerships: they must include binding social and environmental standards and promote local value creation. We must advocate for a realignment of European trade policy with enforceable environmental and social standards in the EU’s current negotiations on trade agreements with countries such as Indonesia, Australia and Chile as well.

Raw material extraction will continue to be an explosive area of conflict in the future. Global warming and water shortages as demand increases will further intensify the pressure on the sector. The only way to create an alternative to global dependencies is by driving sustainable international partnerships and a true transition to a circular economy.

Anna Cavazzini has been a member of the European Parliament for ALLIANCE 90 / THE GREENS since 2019. She is Chair of the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO) as well as Vice-President of the Delegation for Relations with the Federative Republic of Brazil and substitute member of the Committee on International Trade. She is negotiating the Critical Raw Materials Act in the Trade Committee for the Green Party.

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