The metal leading the way to a green, circular economy
By Lisa Allen, Regulatory Affairs Manager, ILA
The EU Raw Materials Week takes place this week raising critical concerns and issues. Reliable and unhindered access to certain raw materials is a growing concern within the EU and across the globe. While access to critical raw materials is essential to the decarbonisation of society, the lead industry is an example of a strategically autonomous industry that can be relied upon.
Energy production, transportation, and industrial activities are the three largest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions – collectively representing over 75%. Speeding up the transition to electrification and renewable energy and breaking away from fossil fuels, is key to achieving the EU’s 2050 climate-neutral target. And the next decade’s activities could be decisive: according to EU Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, 2030 is a critical deadline if the EU wants to have everything in place to reach its 2050 goal.
If the world is going to meet the growing demands for global decarbonisation, industrial growth is needed. In fact, one report recently estimated that $1 trillion needs to be invested globally over the next 15 years, just in the raw materials alone that are essential to our energy transition. Raw materials are irreplaceable in solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and energy-efficient lighting. Demand for the raw materials needed for these clean technologies such as lead, lithium, sodium and nickel will increase exponentially. In particular, lead is expected to see an 18% increase in production demand while the European and global automotive and industrial battery market is forecasted to rise to €35 billion and over €130 billion respectively by 2030.1
Achieving the Holy Grail of a climate-neutral circular economy relies on strategic industrial supply chains having secure access to sustainable raw materials. As demand for decarbonisation rises, so will the need for raw materials. Europe needs to be strategic in ensuring it has autonomy – sufficient supplies of raw materials that are obtained responsibly and sustainably.
Embracing circular economy principles provides more diversified and stable supplies of the many technology-critical raw materials needed to resource our green energy fuelled growth transition. Commercialising materials that are produced, used and recovered safely in the EU will be central to supplying Europe’s green transition.
The EU is already a world leader in the circular economy of metals and, to me lead is its poster child.
Here are just three examples of why:
- The use of lead in alloys such as brass and bronze to support better engineering and machineability also makes it easier to reclaim and recycle the metals at a later date, helping to minimise waste and to return value to the product cycle for as long as possible.
- As the EU’s ETN Socrates project has highlighted, lead has a fundamental role of lead in the circular economy and in urban mining, enabling the recovery and recycling of other critical metals and materials from electronics waste and other complex products. According to project supervisor Professor Bart Blanpain, “lead metallurgy is fundamental if the EU wants to retain its leading position in the global circular economy” .
- The lead battery value chain is already recognised as the gold standard for the circular economy, the sector recycling almost all used batteries collected in Europe as part of a closed-loop process.
In short, lead matters. Alongside its impressive circular economy credentials, lead plays a vital role in some of the EU’s most important and growing renewable energy and energy storage sectors. It’s a vital raw material contributing to the longevity of solar panels, and it’s an essential sheathing material used to protect high-voltage cables that connect wind farms to the electricity grid – pretty important given that wind energy is set to become the EU’s largest power source by 2027!
Lead batteries, as part of a mix of battery technologies, then help us bridge between periods of excess supply and high demand, storing (renewable) energy during periods of peak production and releasing it when needed at night, when the wind isn’t blowing – or as emergency power for hospitals, telecommunications and data centres if their primary electricity supply fails. Already, 70% of the global rechargeable energy storage solutions use lead-based batteries, and the market – for all battery technologies – is set to increase, motivated by the global drive to achieve climate neutrality.2
With EU Raw Materials week upon us, it’s a good time to think of lead: an essential, sustainable raw material and circular economy enabler in a complex, inter-connected eco-system that Europe needs to achieve its decarbonisation and green growth targets.
1,2 Avicenne – CBI market report, 2020