With the EU net zero deadline edging ever closer, the world’s oceans rising to record temperatures and Europe’s glaciers rapidly shrinking, the need to support sustainable forms of energy is greater than ever. Add to this, the recent flare-up of tensions in the Middle East and the likely political ripple effect across oil-producing nations, and a re-evaluation of how we source raw materials is becoming even more critical. For many, the answer is simple: mining.
Long employed as a way of extracting useful materials and valuable minerals from the earth, mining continues to be a popular choice in many developing countries. In Europe, however, it has largely fallen out of favour. Typically considered dirty and polluting, detrimental to waterways, habitats and biodiversity and – as with the case with coal – no longer cost-effective, it is seen as a disruptive industry.
However, those perceptions are beginning to change with the advent of “green mining” – summed up by Future Bridge Mining as “an environmentally sustainable method of extracting, processing and distributing minerals, metals, and fossil fuels” with its goal “to reduce the environmental impact on operations and conserve resources for future generations”.
Great demand vs vulnerable supply
Europe has rich deposits of so-called EU Critical and Strategic Raw Materials, such as Titanium, Phosphate and Vanadium – all being explored and sourced by Norge Mining – and Nickel and Copper have also been found in Scandinavia, Spain and Portugal. Demand for these materials is greater than ever before and it is simply not tenable to rely on vulnerable supply chains. Covid was a stark example of the danger of fragility.
While countries such as the UK and Sweden have begun to lead the way with projects including a new Anglo-French venture to mine Lithium in southwest England and the Swedish carbon-free iron mine at Kiruna, more sustainable mining is vital if Europe is to become resource-independent. Indeed, according to a recent Euronews report, “in order to move to using 100% renewable energy, the world will need as much copper over the next two decades as we have taken from the Earth since the beginning of civilization”.
And copper is just one of the materials crucial to sustainability; along with silver it is used in Electric Cars, solar panels, wind turbines and renewable plants. Others include phosphate – according to a report from Electronics 360, around 19% of the world’s EVs are powered by lithium iron phosphate batteries (LFPs); phosphate is also integral to global food security. Titanium is particularly valuable due to its corrosion resistance and ability to withstand extreme temperatures, while vanadium is used in redox flow batteries. These materials are of international importance and could be key players in trade leverage. In short, Europe has the need and the potential – but is not currently fulfilling either.
Companies must eschew traditional practices that contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions and use instead non-disruptive techniques that minimise damage to local ecosystems, carefully monitor social and economic impacts and use renewable energy sources, and energy efficient equipment, even drones and artificial intelligence. Waste such as “tailings”, must also be kept to a minimum or reused. But above all, it’s technology that holds the key if green mining is to be legitimate – carefully extracting the minerals and metals the world needs, while mitigating environmental and social impact.