The European Union consumes 20-30% of all the metals produced in the world, but itself produces very little - at best around a few per cent of the different raw materials. It is thus almost entirely dependent on imports. And the other economic powers are competing for the same raw materials.
"China, for example, now understands that metals are strategic resources. They have increased production of minerals and metals, but export hardly any of what they produce, and instead refine them to make the products themselves. Furthermore, China invests in the mining industry abroad, therefore ensuring that it is able to import raw materials," says Doctor Patrice Christmann, head of strategy at BRGM, the French Geological Survey, and advisor to the European Commission.
For quite some time, the EU imagined that free, undistorted markets would guarantee the supply of raw materials. Not any more. A raw materials initiative adopted in 2008 is an attempt to guarantee in a variety of ways the supply of minerals and metals to the Member States of the EU.
"The aims of the initiative are being promoted under the EU Horizon 2020 research programme. It will help in the search for new solutions in the substitution and recycling of raw materials, for instance," says Patrice Christmann.
Substitute products and recycling, however, will not boost self-sufficiency, because the demand for metals is increasing with urbanisation, population growth and technological developments. The demand for some metals is predicted to grow as much as 8% a year.
Europe also needs new, sustainably realised production of minerals and metals."
The Nordic mining industry is needed
The hopes of improving the self-sufficiency of the EU's mining industry lie in the north, according to Christmann. The Fennoscandian Shield is a geologically favourable region for metals and minerals. It has nickel, chromium, zinc, copper, cobalt, gold, iron and vanadium.
"Europe needs the profitable and dynamic Nordic mining industry and community. Without them, we would be losing a lot."
Besides the favourable geology, Finland and Sweden have efficient production systems, a unique tradition of cooperation between the mining industry, technology companies, the public sector and research institutes, and properly funded national research and development programmes.
"Although Finland is small in terms of its population, you have an exceptionally vibrant extractive industry, in which all the operators work hand in hand. There are several world-class organisations in the metal processing chain that are able to sell their knowledge and skills at home and abroad. The sector is in good shape and continues to develop."
Green mining under way in Finland
In Finland, support for the development of a sustainable extractive industry is provided by the Tekes Green Mining Programme, which covers a total of 54 projects. In the opinion of the Programme Manager, Kari Keskinen, the overall budget has risen to 56 million euros, of which the contribution made by companies is about half. Keskinen thinks that the final figure will go up to as much as 75 million euros.
"That is more than we could have expected. The companies involved deserve a big thank you for that."
The EU finances research and development in the extractive industry via such programmes as ERA-MIN. In Finland, that programme is coordinated by Tekes. The results of the first round of applications – four funded projects – were published this week. The following round of applications will probably start in March 2014.
Another programme that sponsors development work is Horizon 2020, with some 33 million euros of its research funding going to projects relating to the extractive industry. Kari Keskinen points out that companies as well as a research institute are involved in financed projects.
"We need more companies to be involved, as now there is a lot of money to go round."
Tel. +358 2950 55843
kari.keskinen (at) tekes.fi