Study warns of supply challenges for metals critical to energy transition

Metals

A study conducted by Belgium’s Katholieke Universiteit (KU Leuven) has echoed the International Energy Agency’s warning of supply challenges for several metals needed in Europe’s energy transition away from fossil fuels.

The report, ‘Metals to Clean Energy’ – commissioned by Europe’s association of metal producers, Eurometaux – says that meeting the European Union’s Green Deal goal of climate neutrality by 2050 will require 35 times more lithium and seven to 26 times the amount of increasingly scarce rare earth metals compared to the continents limited use today. Additionally, the energy transition will also require far greater annual supplies of aluminium (an increase of 33 per cent on top of today’s use), copper (35 per cent), silicon (45 per cent), nickel (100 per cent), a and cobalt (330 per cent), all essential to Europe’s plans for producing the electric vehicles and batteries, renewable wind, solar and hydrogen energy technologies, and the grid infrastructure needed to achieve climate neutrality.

Liesbet Gregoir, the lead author at KU Leuven, commented: “Europe needs to decide urgently how it will bridge its looming supply gap for primary metals. Without a decisive strategy, it risks new dependencies on unsustainable suppliers.”

Coal-powered Chinese and Indonesian metal production will dominate global refining capacity growth for battery metals and rare earths. Europe also relies on Russia for its current supply of aluminium, nickel and copper.

The study recommends that Europe link with proven responsible suppliers managing their environmental and social risks, questioning why the bloc has not yet followed other global powers like China in investing into external mines to drive ESG standards directly.

The metals in scope today contribute around three per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Metals and mining operations must manage their local biodiversity impacts, waste, and local pollution potential, while securing human rights.

In the short term, however, Europe faces critical shortfalls without more mined and refined metals supplying the start of its clean energy system. Progressive steps will be needed to develop a long-term Circular Economy, which avoids a repeat of Europe’s current fossil fuel dependency.

“Recycling is Europe’s best chance to improve its long-term self-sufficiency. It is a step-up that our clean energy system will be based on permanent metals which can be recycled indefinitely, compared with today’s constant burning of fossil fuels,” the report concludes. The bloc, however, “must act strongly now to raise recycling rates, invest in the necessary infrastructure, and overcome key economic bottlenecks.”

The study notes that metals recycling, on average, saves between 35 and 95 per cent of the CO2 compared with primary metals production.

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