However, previous governments have done comparatively little to develop new mines or at least to secure them financially. German politicians see this as a chore for the economy, while China has supported raw material extraction with state subsidies since the 1990s. Today, the country dominates the mining and processing of all rare earth metals, but also gallium, vanadium and indium.
A look at Serbia shows how late Germany and the European Union are on the road to securing the raw materials for the energy transition. In 2013, the Serbian government was looking for investors for the copper mine and smelter near the small town of Bor in the east of the country. The discovery of a new copper deposit in particular made it possible for the old industrial complex to be rehabilitated at that time.
Despite some interest from Western mining companies, EU governments have not backed any of them with guarantees. The Serbian government finally chose the Chinese company Zijin in 2018. More than 27,000 tons of copper concentrates are now mined at Bor every year. “But now it is more likely to be directed towards the new Chinese Silk Road rather than supporting the energy transition in Europe,” says Jens Gutzmer.
Nobody wants a mine next door
Other projects that could support the raw material needs of the European energy transition are causing resistance: In Extremadura in Spain there are important underground lithium deposits, but many residents of nearby communities oppose the proposed mine. Europe’s largest lithium deposits are believed to be in Portugal, whose president recently spoke out against a mine in the northwest of the country.
Pressure from the streets also prevented the planned lithium mine in Jadar, Serbia: After massive protests shortly before the parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic decided against the project in January 2022. The reason for the protests lies precisely in the experience with the Bor copper plant, which has been run by the Chinese for four years: the Chinese entry hardly improved the economic conditions of the local population. The company mainly hired workers from Vietnam and China, while the start of production caused a massive deterioration in air quality for all residents. Although Rio Tinto responded by promising to employ 90 percent Serb workers at its planned mine and to follow strict environmental guidelines, this failed to convince either the Serbs or the government shortly before the election.
While the energy transition is currently increasing the need for metals and thus more mining, there is at least one positive outlook: it is the path to a real circular economy if, for example, the need for neodymium can be reduced and copper for new wind turbines. covered by disused recycling systems. However, this point in time has not yet been reached: “At the moment we are hardly dismantling anything, but mostly building it,” says Jens Gutzmer.
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