Europe’s desire to wean itself off fossil fuels and no longer depend on Russian energy will not only lead to a radical change in consumption habits, but it will also require a lot of lithium.
Given that the Old Continent produces practically no metal: is it simply a question of exchanging one addiction for another?
EU leaders have touted the virtues of the New Green Deal which sees the 27-nation bloc becoming the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050. To achieve this, the EU aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 from 1990s levels, zero emissions from new cars by 2035 and increase its share of renewables in the bloc’s energy mix to 40%.
Lithium is increasingly used for batteries in electronics from smartphones to television as well as to store energy produced by solar panels and wind turbines and in electric cars.
According to the World Bank, the production of minerals, such as graphite, lithium and cobalt, should increase by nearly 500% by 2050 in order to meet climate targets, while EU officials estimate that to achieve climate neutrality by mid-century, the bloc will require 18 times more lithium than it currently uses by 2030 and nearly 60 times more by 2050.
However, Europe has only one lithium mine, in Portugal, and the vast majority of its needs are now covered by imports.
About 87% of the EU’s sources of unrefined lithium come from Australia – the rest from Portugal – while Chile, the United States and Russia provide 78%, 8% and 4% respectively.
China is also a particularly important player. Although it has about 7% of the world’s lithium reserves, 13% of lithium extracted in 2019 was in China while more than half of the lithium mined that year was processed in the country.
More than 70% of lithium-ion batteries that entered the market last year were produced in China.
Brussels is aware of this dependency and added lithium to its list of critical raw materials in 2020.
A Commission spokesperson acknowledged to Euronews that “lithium production and refining is highly concentrated in a handful of foreign countries, which increases our vulnerability to various supply risks.”
They added that “given the economic and technological relevance of this resource, as well as the external dependencies it generates, it is our responsibility to ensure that the European economy can benefit from a sustainable and resilient supply. in lithium”.
“While the EU will continue to cultivate its international partnerships, significant lithium mining potential exists within our borders and its exploitation could create thousands of jobs. The development of local mining operations and lithium processing facilities will not only improve our strategic autonomy and strengthen our economy, but also enable us to better monitor and contain the environmental impacts of mining industries, which are much more difficult to control beyond EU borders”, have they stated.
Opposition to mines
There are currently 10 potentially viable lithium projects in the EU: three in Portugal, two in Spain and Germany each, the other three being respectively in the Czech Republic, Finland and Austria.
For René Kleijn, associate professor at the Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML) at Leiden University, “if all these plants became operational, that would probably be enough for our own supply”.
Problem solved then? Well, not quite.
Getting all these projects off the ground will not necessarily be easy. A 2.2 billion euro lithium mine project in Serbia was discontinued earlier this year after strong local opposition over environmental concerns. There is also fierce opposition to lithium mining in Portugal.
The lithium extraction process is mainly done in two ways. There’s the traditional open-pit approach with the metal mined from hard rock and the second involves pumping huge amounts of groundwater to the surface to remove the lithium from the brackish liquid that rises as the water rises. evaporates.
Both are considered disruptive to the landscape and the local population with a potential risk of air and water pollution. The use of water to extract lithium is also controversial as water is becoming more scarce in some regions due to climate change. Large parts of Portugal and Spain, for example, suffered from a winter drought that led to the depletion of reservoirs.
But there is a third, greener lithium mining method called direct lithium mining that is being implemented for the potential project in Germany. It relies on geothermal energy to pump brine to the surface to allow the extraction of lithium before being pumped into the underground geothermal reservoir.
From extraction to manufacturing
However, mining is just the tip of the iceberg. Once extracted, the lithium must be refined, batteries manufactured and possibly recycled.
In fact, the latter is really where the lithium shines.
“One of Europe’s biggest sources of pollution and CO2 emissions is road transport,” said Julia Poliscanova, head of electric vehicles and mobility at Transport & Environment, a campaign group for clean transport. , to Euronews.
Transport generates around a quarter of total EU emissions, with road transport accounting for around 70% of them.
“The best way to decarbonize one of the biggest climate problems is electrification, and for that we need batteries. And for that we need lithium.
“However, it is indeed important to point out that any mining, any extraction of raw materials, oil, nickel, lithium, gas has an impact. When it comes to lithium, the impact per car is significantly less. When you have a car, you would burn 17,000 liters of oil using that car,” she said.
“For a battery, an electric vehicle, you need about five or six kilograms of lithium which you can then recycle and reuse again and again. You just have to introduce it into your first batteries and then after a while , it can become a circular Thus, the impact of lithium is significantly lower than that of oil.”
The United States and China are moving faster
But again, Europe is lagging behind on the whole supply chain infrastructure.
The 2006 EU Battery Directive was written before lithium-ion batteries became increasingly important due to a more lukewarm approach to tackling climate change and therefore set no targets for the lithium recycling. Of our time, almost no lithium is recovered in the EUwhile recycling yields are estimated at around 95% for cobalt and nickel, and 80% for copper.
“We could have anticipated this much earlier. For example, in the United States we now have policies that basically come from the Cold War era and are now being implemented by President Biden in order to secure the chains supply chain for batteries and electric vehicles,” Kleijn said. .
Washington’s Defense Production Act allows the White House to exert control over domestic industries in times of crisis. It was used by President Trump to limit exports of medical goods early in the pandemic and by Biden to speed up vaccinations.
He now has once again been invoked by Biden “to secure U.S. production of materials critical to bolstering our clean energy economy by reducing our dependence on China and other countries for the minerals and materials that will power our clean energy future,” including lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite and manganese.
“It’s really like unconditional state interference in markets to make sure your industries are able to survive and also aren’t dependent on autocratic states or other states that you might not want depend. And that’s not the kind of politics that Europe is famous for,” Kleijn explained.
“And I’m not even talking about China. I mean, in China it’s completely state-run. There are big Chinese state-owned mining companies involved in extracting all these materials all over the world, qu “It’s cobalt in Africa or lithium in Australia. The largest miner in Australia’s largest lithium mining operation, for example, is one-quarter owned by a Chinese state-owned company. So you can see how the Chinese government is also heavily involved in securing supply chains also overseas,” he added.
2030 and beyond
Investments are being made across Europe in battery production to reduce dependence on foreign countries.
About 24 lithium-ion battery cell gigafactories are expected to open in the EU between 2021 and 2030. Tesla, for example, opened its gigafactory in Germany last month.
The Association of European Manufacturers of Automotive and Industrial Batteries now the forecast that the value of the European battery market will increase from €15 billion in 2019 to around €35 billion in 2030 – lithium-ion accounting for around half – while the value of the global market will increase from €90 billion to €150 billion euros.
Yet even in the best-case scenario, with all potential mines open by 2025, “I don’t see how Europe will achieve sufficiency in this decade,” Poliscanova signaled.
“But after 2030, depending on how smart our recycling policy is, Europe can become self-sufficient,” she concluded.