Independent AND sustainable

Unlike the more regional conflicts of the past, the Ukraine war and the increasing tensions between China and the USA are changing the entire socio-political landscape. In economic terms, too. Whether it is the pressure on the energy markets due to the loss of Russian gas supplies, or the threat of worsening supply bottlenecks for semiconductors as a result of the Taiwan conflict, it is becoming increasingly clear how fragile the international network is on which the global economy is based. And the strategic value of goods that for decades were regarded as readily available "commodities" is becoming ever clearer. 

As a result, states and regions want to free themselves from dependencies and, if possible, become self-sufficient. In the USA, for example, the Senate recently passed a law to promote domestic chip production. And Germany has just reached an agreement with Canada to supply hydrogen and is hoping for liquid natural gas from there as well.

Striving for autonomy

But there is far more at stake in global power confrontation and alliance-building than fossil raw materials. Also at stake is access to many metals, without which modern life, let alone the transformation to a sustainable and digital future, is not possible. EU Commissioner Thierry Breton in particular has not tired of emphasizing how important it is for Europe to have access to lithium, nickel and the like, the deposits of which are mostly concentrated in a few countries.

In fact, nothing works without minerals. We will need copper to transport more electricity in the future. We can only build electric cars with lithium as well as cobalt and graphite. Rare earth metals are indispensable for wind turbines and photovoltaic modules. The demand for all these materials is expected to grow very strongly. A scenario published by Leiden University in the Netherlands in May predicts an increase of 400 percent for cobalt and no less than 2,100 percent for lithium in Europe between 2020 and 2050.

Securing resources – and conserving them

But securing more resources is only half the battle. It will only become a forward-looking concept if we also conserve more resources. To achieve this, the recycling of raw materials in particular must significantly pick up speed. Overall, only 8.6 percent of the world is circular. In some aeras, we are already well on the way: for example, more than 50 percent of metals such as iron, zinc and platinum are recycled in the EU, according to Breton.

In other areas, however, there is still a lot of potential for development. Take plastics, for example. A wonderful material without which the longed-for green, smart future is virtually impossible. Without plastics, there would be no electric cars, no wind turbines, and no smartphones. The downside is that far too little old plastic is recycled. In the EU, the recycling rate is only around one-third and worldwide approximately 15 percent. The plastic waste in the world's oceans speaks volumes.

We therefore urgently need to develop and expand waste disposal systems. And we need to boost forward-looking new processes such as chemical recycling. These are long-term, complex and difficult issues that are in danger of falling behind at the moment.

But to keep the global economy and key industries like energy, IT and chemicals going, we need to turn all the screws at the same time. We need to promote autonomy - with good judgment and without deepening confrontation and bloc-building.  We need to forge stable partnerships with like-minded peers. And we need to work at full steam towards a sustainable future by making the circular economy the global guiding principle.

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