Changing Resource Needs for a Clean Energy Future: Transatlantic Implications – Part II
Transatlantic Opportunities for a Clean Energy Future
As Part I of this blogpost highlights, the transatlantic partners face some risks and uncertainties when it comes to the resources necessary for clean energy technologies. Considerable sustainability issues in the mining processes of these materials in other countries as well as volatile prices are some of those challenges. As leading markets in green technology, the U.S. and Germany are ideally positioned to prepare for the implications of cleaner energy systems and to use their strengths to jointly move forward. Among the opportunities for transatlantic cooperation in this critical field are joint research efforts to improve efficiency and alternatives, increased market transparency, and the development of international standards.
Collaborating on Research Projects to Improve Efficiency and Finding Alternative Resources
Lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles are expected to last for about ten years, thus the first generations of EV batteries will need to be replaced soon. Recycling of key components would decrease the necessity to continuously mine for additional resources, thus increasing sustainability. Additionally, recycling may in fact require less energy than the original mining and refining process. Recycling in this field, however, is still underdeveloped and involves the complex challenge of re-extracting the materials when there are often only tiny amounts of the products. Research efforts in the U.S. and Germany are examining how recycling strategies could be implemented technologically and how they could be made more economical. More R&D efforts are required that also take into consideration how the production process itself could be shaped in order to make recycling easier.
Countries have also increased research activities to find alternatives for certain critical materials to reduce the import dependency from controversial country suppliers. One venue of research German companies are pursuing is replacing rare earths in magnet production with other materials such as iron and cobalt. In battery production, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory supports the development of nickel-zinc batteries. These efforts reduce dependence on imports while diversifying resource suppliers to countries such as China, Australia, Peru, and the U.S.
As both the U.S. and Germany are investing in research to develop recycling techniques and alternatives to critical materials, joint research efforts or technology partnerships would allow both countries to leverage their funding further and achieve success more quickly.
Creating Market Transparency and Developing International Standards
Critical materials for renewable energy and batteries are not scarce, yet they require targeted, long-term investment strategies in order to secure adequate supply for the energy transition. The social and environmental conditions of critical material mining currently threaten the achievement of many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), conserving and protecting life below water (SDG 14), as well as biodiversity (SDG 15). Additionally, import dependence makes Germany and the U.S. highly dependent on volatile prices and few supplying countries, without much control over the social and environmental conditions under which these resources are mined abroad. Transatlantic cooperation could also be seized to increase highly necessary market transparency and set international standards for critical materials.
The U.S. and Germany could use their economic and political power on the global stage to provide leadership to develop international standards and certifications that allow for more market transparency for rare earths. Much like a fair-trade standard, an internationally developed and recognized certification would ensure that rare earths are mined in an environmentally and socially sustainable way. It is important that this standard is set and followed internationally. Transatlantic leadership is therefore imperative, as Europe and the U.S. present a large market share for rare earths. Under their leadership a standard could provide the necessary impetus to improve the conditions under which rare earths are mined, even if the standard might be voluntary in the beginning.
Transatlantic cooperation could thus provide an impetus not only for a reliable global supply of resources necessary for a clean energy transition. It can also make an important contribution to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals and ensuring social and environmental accountability of rare earth and critical material production.