To limit climate change worldwide, in the Netherlands and beyond we are working on the energy transition: the transition from an energy system based on fossil fuel sources to a system based on sustainable energy. However, the technologies that generate sustainable energy also require raw materials, and the production and supply chains of those raw materials are under increasing pressure.
To explain this, we organized a webinar in collaboration with Leiden University and TU Delft on the evening of Monday 4 April, guided by our Copper8 colleague Sybren. The webinar aimed to address the relationship between the scarcity of raw materials, the war in Ukraine and the energy transition. As a result of the war, the supply of some metals is under greater pressure, and prices are rising significantly. With this webinar, we are building on our exploratory publication A Circular Energy Transition (in Dutch), which we launched in the summer of 2021.
Because of the war in Ukraine, nobody wants metals and materials from Russia, and this is leading to supply problems and higher prices. At the same time, the war is increasing the urgency for the EU to become less dependent on Russian gas, and for this, we need green energy technologies. This leads to a paradox, because our geopolitical dependence is shifting from oil states to what are known as electro states. Interestingly, this shift isn’t reducing our dependence on autocratic regimes, but rather increasing it.
This leads to several risks: risks to the long-term security of supply, short-term supply risks and geopolitical risks. In addition, it seems that the war in Ukraine does not mean the ‘end of globalization’: many non-Western countries are still accepting Russian products. Neither are we prepared to take sanctions if we are too dependent: for example, we are not taking serious sanctions against China, even though Western European politicians are aware of the controversy around the Uyghurs.
The Netherlands has a high demand for critical metals, which are used in technologies including solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electrolysers. While the Netherlands only accounts for about 1% of global GDP, 0.5% of energy consumption and 0.2% of the population, we seem to need 5-25% of the global annual production of some metals to run our sustainable energy system. Moreover, these materials come from a small group of countries, which leads to increasing prices, impending shortages and high dependency. Meanwhile, the energy transition remains a global issue: imagine that we have a sustainable energy system but other countries can’t achieve the same – the climate will be no better off.
To develop companies that contribute to solutions in these areas, it seems that green industrial policies set by the government are an important prerequisite. These companies don’t come to the Netherlands of their own accord, and they do not always have a business case ready. With a long-term vision from the government, companies and investors know where they stand. This requires joint discussion about the energy transition and the raw materials agenda – two sides of the same coin.
Raw materials are crucial for the energy transition
The awareness that raw materials are crucial for a successful energy transition is lacking in both politics and society. There are no easy solutions to this problem. For now, we remain dependent on other countries for our raw materials, and we should reconsider mining in Europe. We need to ensure that we extend the life of technologies we produce, and we should recover the raw materials as best we can from our urban mine so we can reuse them. It is crucial for all parties – politics and business – to share a collective will to make this happen. And we desperately need these solutions to prevent future wars. “If we can’t get access to what we want or need, we fight over it. The history of materials is one of conflict.”
This article is a summary of a webinar organized by experts involved in this topic. During the webinar, mini lectures were given by René Kleijn (Leiden University) and Benjamin Sprecher (TU Delft). Michel Rademaker (HCSS), David Peck (TU Delft), Erik van Doezum (ING) and Suzanne Kröger (GroenLinks Member of Parliament) joined the webinar in panel discussions.