Energy transition at risk due to minerals supply constraints, lack of recycling, Eurometaux report says

Critical shortfalls loom without new primary metals supply and better recycling in the system soon, endangering Europe’s goal of a more autonomous clean energy system, according to a new study commissioned by Eurometaux, the region’s association of metal producers

Meeting the European Union’s (EU) goal of climate neutrality by 2050 will require 35 times more lithium compared to that currently used, the study by Belgium’s Katholieke Universiteit (KU Leuven) found.

The transition to a net-zero carbon emissions economy will also require 33% more aluminium, 35% more copper, 100% more nickel, 45% more silicon and 330% more cobalt than is currently used, the report noted.

These materials are all essential to Europe’s plans for producing the electric vehicles (EV) and batteries, renewable wind, solar and hydrogen energy technologies, and the grid infrastructure needed to achieve climate neutrality.

The report, published on Monday April 25, said that the EU faces critical shortfalls in the next 15 years 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, the report added.

Recycling lies at the heart of the solutions to these looming shortages, the report said.

By 2050, 40-75% of Europe’s clean energy metal needs could be met through local recycling if Europe invests heavily now and fixes bottlenecks, it added.

Specifically, the study stated that by 2050, Europe’s plans for producing clean energy technologies will annually require 4.5 million tonnes of aluminium, 1.5 million tonnes of copper, 800,000 tonnes of lithium, 400,000 tonnes of nickel, 200,000 tonnes of silicon, and 60,000 tonnes of cobalt. It will also require 300,000 tonnes of zinc, a rise of around 10-15% from current levels, and 3,000 tonnes of the rare earth metals neodymium, dysprosium and praseodymium, an increase of between seven and 26 times depending on the materials.

“Although the EU has committed to accelerate its energy transition and produce a great deal of its clean energy technologies domestically, it remains import dependent for much of the metal needed,” the study said. “And there is growing concern about the security of supply.”

Supply risks

According to the study, Europe could face problems around 2030 from global supply shortages for five key metals: lithium, cobalt, nickel, rare earths and copper.

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

EU primary metals demand will peak around 2040; thereafter, increased recycling will help the bloc toward greater self-sufficiency, assuming major investments are made in recycling infrastructure and legislative bottlenecks are addressed, the study added.

The study recommended 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 directly drive environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards.

Local challenge

According to the study, a paradigm shift is needed if Europe wants to develop new local supply sources with high environmental and social protections.

“Today we don’t see the community buy-in or the business conditions for the continent to build its own strong supply chains. The window is narrowing; projects really need to be taken forward in the next two years to be ready by 2030,” the study said.

There is theoretical potential for new domestic mines to cover 5-55% of Europe’s 2030 needs, with largest project pipelines for lithium and rare earths, the study said. But most announced projects have an uncertain future despite Europe’s comparatively high environmental standards, struggling with local community opposition and permit challenges, or relying on untested processes, it added.

According to the study, Europe would also need to open new refineries to transform mined ores and secondary raw materials into metals or chemicals. The region’s energy crisis makes new refining investment challenging and surging power prices have already caused the temporary closure of nearly half the continent’s existing refining capacity for aluminium and zinc, while production has increased in other parts of the world, it said.

Recycling

The study found that by 2050, locally recycled metals could produce 75% of Europe-made battery cathodes, all its plans for permanent magnets production, and significant volumes of aluminium and copper.

“Recycling is Europe’s best chance to improve its long-term self-sufficiency. It’s 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 said.

But the bloc “must act strongly now to raise recycling rates, invest in the necessary infrastructure, and overcome key economic bottlenecks,” it added.

The study noted that metals recycling, on average, saves between 35% and 95% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) compared with primary metals production.

Recycling “will not provide a major EU supply source to Europe’s electric vehicle batteries and renewable energy technologies until after 2040, however,” the study noted. “These applications and their metals are only just being put on the market and will not be available for recycling for the next 10-15 years,” it said.

Technology developments and behavioral changes will also have an important influence on metals demand after 2030, but these aspects could not be assessed in the study due to a lack of scenarios, KU Leuven added.

To understand more about risks to the battery raw materials market, read our recent BRM risk outlook report and view the Fastmarkets battery raw materials risk matrix.

We use cookies to provide a personalized site experience.
By continuing to use & browse the site you agree to our Privacy Policy.
Proceed