On 1 December, SUPEERA’s policy webinar “Paving the way for strategic autonomy: The role of R&I on materials for the clean energy transition” took place online. The session gathered more than 50 participants, including key EU policymakers, representatives of industry, civil society and research, and allowed the audience to share their perspective and participate in the discussion through interactive questions & answers sections.
The webinar was joined by a series of distinguished guests, namely Daniel Cios, Policy Officer at the European Commission, Dumitru Fornea, Rapporteur “Opinion on Critical Raw Materials” for the European Economic and Social Committee, Amada Montesdeoca, Director of Open Innovation at UMICORE, and Sawako Nakamae, Coordinator of EERA’s JP on Advanced Materials and Processes for Energy Applications (AMPEA).
Key outcomes of the discussion:
The session was introduced by EERA Senior Policy Officer Rosita Zilli, who opened the floor with a series of ice-breaking questions aiming at getting to know the audience’s background and expectations. The majority of the attending participants revealed to have a background in either Research or Academia and expressed an interest in gathering in-depth R&I challenges and industrial opportunities connected to the topic of the webinar.
The panel discussion was moderated by EERA Secretary General Adel El Gammal, who initially pointed out how increasingly important the topic of materials is becoming. The first introduction statement came from Daniel Cios, who provided the context to the subject, explaining how crucial raw materials are for renewable technologies, and therefore to the energy transition. The European Commission Policy Officer added that there currently is an increasing concern by producers in having access to the necessary raw materials. Mr Cios also highlighted the importance of research and innovation, particularly regarding the Horizon Europe programme, which has seen an increase in budget for 2021-27, where the whole raw materials value-chain is covered by research topics.
The second speaker, Dumitru Fornea, highlighted the external costs of the green economy and the energy transition, particularly as the demand for green energy is increasing while Europe does not currently have the capabilities and technology to provide the supply to that demand. Thus, the expert pointed out that a different approach to strategic interdependence is required, as Europe currently has a huge dependency on raw materials that are mostly existent in other regions of the world. Additionally, the mining projects for these materials have environmental and local social consequences in the respective areas. Subsequently, Mr Fornea emphasised the need for the EU to be present on the areas in which these raw materials are produced, and build trustful relationships with the respective projects and communities. Such strategy has not been adopted yet, even though countries like China have been marking their presence in such sites for a long time. Moreover, he pointed out how this context is an opportunity for research and innovation in Europe in order to find alternatives and solutions.
Amada Montesdeoca provided an industry perspective, mainly from the view of UMICORE, and explained how the cooperation between industry and R&I actors is fundamental in delivering new technologies and solutions, as well as alternative materials. This process requires the reskilling of the workforce and the strengthening of the intellectual property in Europe. In that context, Dr Montesdeoca added that circularity and the recyclability of technologies and products is important to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint, particularly with respect to the waste that is generated.
The last speaker, Sawako Nakamae, followed on Santana’s focus on the discovery and development of new functional materials, and how it shows the importance of R&I’s role in the clean energy transition. The transition brings difficult challenges, considering the availability and sustainability of critical materials and the need to ensure that those materials do not affect the performance of applications. On strengthening the mining of raw materials in Europe, Dr Nakamae highlighted the need to reskill the workforce also considering sustainability standards and protocols.
The discussion explored the aforementioned topics in more depth. One of the focus was on the “fairness” of the clean energy transition and the importance of cooperation, in which Mr Fornea mentioned the EU’s responsibility in cooperating with other countries and partners, and pointed out that the costs of this transition have to be shared in order to avoid unfairness and the emergence of conflicts. Mr El Gammal added that this point was discussed at COP27 regarding the “loss and damage” negotiations. Mr Cios joined the discussion, explaining that the EU is working with international partners and third countries in order to secure access to raw materials and that there is a need to expand that cooperation to businesses, to foster matchmaking and facilitate investments.
On the challenge of the green transition and the demand for renewable energies, he confirmed that the Commission is looking at the increasing importance of raw materials in that context. Dr Montesdeoca highlighted the research that is currently being developed in Europe regarding the development of new materials, although she explained that Europe is more focused on the applications of existing materials. Thus, she noted that more support needs to be provided to the research community in developing the next generation of raw materials.
The importance of data, particularly on the access to it in a open and fair way, was also highlighted by Dr Nakamae as a crucial component for research modelling and policy-making. Mr Fornea added that data sharing is an issue regarding raw materials as it is mostly owned by international corporations. In that sense, he emphasised how important cooperation is and how vital that data is for governments in the policy-making process.
Finally, on the question of how this situation can be approached efficiently and in a fair way, Mr Fornea commented that the legislation established today will impact the outcome in ten years, thus investment in research and solutions are crucial to shield the EU against the effects of a potential future crisis in raw materials. Additionally, he stated, the international dynamics on environmental concerns in the extraction module of these materials needs to be combined with the protection of the rights and necessities of the local populations. Mr El Gammal concluded that including and getting the citizens to understand the necessary trade-offs is a crucial step forward, and that the unequal distribution of raw materials between the EU Member States requires a solidarity and compensation mechanism for the benefit of the whole union.