Just as Austria and the European Union as a whole managed to free themselves from natural gas from Russia, another dependency is already threatened. After all, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions necessary to protect the climate will not work without a shift in energy production and a move away from fossil fuels toward the use of the sun and wind or toward the electrification of private transportation. Photovoltaic systems, wind turbines, as well as electric vehicles need more mineral raw materials and rare earths than conventional power plants or vehicles that run on gasoline and diesel. According to a study by the International Energy Agency, more than twice as many mineral raw materials are needed for a modern photovoltaic system than for a coal-fired power plant of the same output. There are nearly five times as much metal in wind turbines on land, and more than seven times more in wind turbines at sea. According to the same study, the number of mineral raw materials required for an electric car is six times more than for conventionally powered cars.
Geographically, demanded raw materials such as nickel, copper, manganese, cobalt, lithium, and graphite are concentrated in countries with fewer oil and gas deposits—not to mention rare earths. With the gradual use of renewable energy and electric mobility, the demand for rare earths will increase sharply in the future. China dominates this market. According to an analysis by the US Geological Survey, the People’s Republic of China has about 44 million tons of the world’s sediments. The second largest reserve in the world is in Vietnam, 22 million tons. World reserves are estimated at about 120 million tons. The dependence on China for production is becoming more apparent, because in 2021 about 61 percent of rare earths come from there.
Thus China could influence the potential and pace of decarbonization in Europe. There is a real risk that the political leadership will use this near-monopoly position as a potential threat on politically sensitive issues such as the position on Taiwan or the human rights situation when dealing with the Uyghur minority. The recent Party Congress of the Communist Party of China also made clear the pursuit of power by the state and the party leader. Economic and political power cannot be viewed separately in China.
The EU Commission recognized this problem and presented a plan for greater flexibility and sustainability as early as 2020. The recommendations contained therein regarding diversifying sources of supply, improving resource efficiency and strengthening the circular economy can only be categorically supported. However, proposals must also be implemented consistently and lead to concrete actions.