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Background

Raw materials are the backbone of the value chain of industrial production, playing a prominent role as a source of prosperity, growth and competitiveness in Europe. By contributing to employment and value generation, the secure supply of mineral resources is crucial for the European Union’s growth and stability. The global use of mineral raw materials has increased exponentially over the past decades, both in overall quantity, and in number and combination of minerals and elements used for different applications. Global mineral markets have undergone much structural change, creating a set of new and interlinked challenges. The old rule of thumb – 20 percent of the world population in Europe, USA and Japan consuming more than 80 percent of the total minerals production – is not valid any more. India, the People’s Republic of China and other populous emerging economies claim an increasing share of raw materials. Population growth, rapid economic development, and urbanisation are now taking place mainly in non-EU countries, and are key drivers of increasing global demand for minerals and metals. Minerals consumption is expected to double by 2030, and it is projected that 60 % of the built environment needed to accommodate the earth’s urban population in 2050 still remains to be built. Such challenges will lead to increased global competition for resources, and threaten the security of Europe’s resource supply.

To ensure a sustainable supply of raw materials, the EU has launched two interlinked actions: the Raw Materials Initiative (RMI) and the European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials (EIP-RM) including its Strategic Implementation Plan (SIP) with 95 actions to foster innovative solutions. The SIP recognises that the European industry is highly dependent on the international market and global raw material value chains for securing raw material supply. Promoting international co-operation forms an important cross-cutting objective for long-term EU policies (SIP’s International Cooperation Pillar).

Access to reliable, fair and sustainable supplies of mineral raw materials from global commodity markets is a key challenge for the EU. Geological resources are often concentrated in a few countries, which elevates supply risk, while the decline of primary mining and processing operations in Europe has decreased domestic supply capacity. Mineral supply chains are becoming ever more global and complex, increasing their vulnerability to demand-supply mismatches, price volatilities, and geopolitical developments such as export restrictions. Transparent and reliable information about global mineral supply chains is a prerequisite for strategic development, decision making, and international collaboration efforts. A common and collaborative cross-institutional methodology is required to resolve critical information barriers and open new gateways, and to develop solutions that improve the transparency of international raw material flows. Such an initiative would create a level playing field with fair and unrestricted access to raw materials information from across global markets.

The decline of primary mining and processing has led to a loss of expertise in the EU, which is now reflected by a shortage of specialist knowledge on primary (geological) and secondary (e.g., recycling) raw materials. This translates to a need for integrating specific country expertise and institutional knowledge from abroad, in order to link different Material Flow Analysis (MFA) dimensions across the complex value chains of global raw material flows. This is of particular importance for critical raw materials, which play key enabling roles in low-carbon and information and telecommunication (ITC) technologies, but are usually used in small amounts in a wide range of product components, making them difficult to trace through the raw materials cycle. Geological (primary) mineral resources, in-use stocks, and recycling potentials are not systematically explored and classified, inconsistently reported, and thus insufficiently integrated into national and international databases. Mineral raw materials undergo through transformation stages (often outside the EU), and national and international trade statistics usually report aggregated data with limited per-substance resolution. Available material flow data thus remain highly uncertain and will have to be improved, harmonised, linked across the different dimensions, and integrated into information infrastructures to assist the development of reliable global material flow models.

Globally, many countries are facing similar challenges, and the EU is maintaining raw materials diplomacy activities and policy dialogues with strategic partners including China, Russia, Canada, Australia, countries of the African Union, Latin America, the US and Japan. Facing the challenge of limited access to critical raw materials (CRMs), several countries already cooperate in developing substitutes for critical/strategic raw materials, in comparing methodologies and criteria, and by combining existing data collections. Problems with data availability, accessibility and sharing are common in these initiatives being experienced on various aggregation and decision-making levels. Addressing these problems requires improved data access rights and the use of interoperable data services and classification systems at international and national levels. This is the aim of the INSPIRE Directive for spatial information, and the United Nations Framework Classification (UNFC) for reporting resources and reserves of mineral resources. Whilst actions for achieving their implementation have been identified, progress with linking initiatives and information infrastructures is hindered by compatibility issues. Moreover, a suitable resource classification system that can be used for both primary (geological) and secondary (recycling) raw materials, still has to be agreed upon.

Concerning the mapping of mineral raw materials flows, a variety of studies and approaches have been developed. However, all of these address only specific aspects or challenges of raw material flows. Examples include the assessment reports on Metal Stocks in Society published by the UNEP International Resource Panel (IRP), and the Study on Data Inventory and for a Raw Material System Analysis (RMSA), commissioned by DG GROW, which examined the flows of (mainly critical) minerals for Europe in more detail. Many businesses are developing models to underpin strategies for securing their raw material supply, including models to facilitate investment decisions for new technologies and to support mergers for integrating supply chains. Still, these actions often lack the required supply chain context, while the used models have limited scope and high uncertainty.

In general, existing studies describe different systems and different data aggregation levels that fit their specific needs. Although there is a variety of demand-supply forecasting tools available, most have specific fields of application, address only particular parts of raw material cycles, and neglect to consistently mass-balance and integrate primary and secondary resources. Thus, despite the EU initiatives and on-going EU-funded international co-operations, current methods and models for global cycles of materials are based on data that are: (i) highly fragmented, (ii) inconsistent, (iii) measured but not available due to confidentiality reasons, or (iv) not measured at all and hence having to be estimated, often on weak grounds resulting in large uncertainties. Existing models are thus heterogeneous, incompatible, unreliable and difficult to understand for scientists and policy-makers alike.

In response to these challenges, the MinFuture project is designed to take the lead in coordinating international R&D actions in the field of raw material flow analysis and forecasting.