“Germany 2049 – Transition to a sustainable use of raw materials”

The expansion of renewable energy, rising consumption, and new infrastructure: the global demand for raw materials such as building and industrial materials and metals is not only high throughout Germany but is increasing on a global scale, owing to the growth of emerging economies and developing countries. At the same time, the extraction of many raw materials is frequently linked to serious negative social and environmental consequences, both within Germany and abroad. Forests are clear-felled and soil is eroded; gold is mined using mercury, which enters soil and drinking water; in many developing countries there are often no, or only rudimentary, health and safety standards in small-scale mining – to name but a few examples of the negative environmental and social impacts of global primary extraction.

The Oeko-Institut’s “Germany 2049” project

Although the German government’s sustainability strategy stipulates the doubling of raw material productivity by 2020, there are no raw material-specific targets or concrete measures for meeting future social, environmental and economic challenges. Devising an overall strategy for this is the aim of the research project “Germany 2049 – Transition to a sustainable use of raw materials”, self-funded by the Oeko-Institut. The fundamental concept is that a sustainable raw material strategy must focus equally on a secure supply of raw material and on the environmentally and socially responsible conditions under which Germany’s raw material needs can be met. Scenarios are employed – a scenario based on a transition to sustainable resources versus a “business as usual” scenario – to examine raw material-specific negative social, environmental and economic impacts of German raw material requirements as well as to formulate concrete raw material-specific targets, measures and instruments for the transition to sustainable raw material management. These were discussed and further developed in expert workshops with representatives from politics, industry and civil society.

Example: The raw materials gravel and neodymium

In its “Germany 2049” project, the Oeko-Institut initially defines the social and environmental impacts of extraction, preparation and processing of raw materials within Germany and abroad for different material groups. The research team infers raw material-specific targets for particularly negative consequences, referred to as “hot spots”. According to the specific challenge, these targets imply measures and changes in supply or demand. Here are two examples:

Focus on gravel

The analysis of gravel underscores the need to significantly decrease demand for primary building materials extracted in Germany to encourage a transition to sustainable raw-material management. Extraction from gravel pits appropriates large areas of land and destroys unspoilt countryside, along with its habitats for flora and fauna. As a result the “transition” scenario assumes that demand for new buildings will drop as proactive rehabilitation of the housing stock increases, thus prolonging the existing infrastructure’s expected lifetime. In addition, more secondary material, such as crushed concrete instead of gravel, will be used for supporting new-building construction. Both measures will help to reduce the amount of primary gravel extracted from open gravel pits in the future.

Focus on neodymium

The rare earth metal neodymium, on the other hand, is used in small amounts, mainly for permanent magnets in electric motors. Because of the hazards to health and the environment which arise from mining, occurring principally in China and due to unsafe treatment of residues containing heavy metals and radioactive elements, a certification system for sustainably mined neodymuim that insists on responsible treatment of this waste is critical. To reduce the amount of metal needed from mining, more recycled neodymium should be used as secondary material in future. Prolonged life of IT equipment in particular can also reduce demand for neodymium.

Overcoming the taboos, strengthening political will

A transition to sustainable raw material management in Germany is possible and achievable. Apart from the analyses and initial proposals for policy instruments set out here, achieving a successful transition requires the will to halt “business as usual” in raw material policy. Instead, taboos must be overcome and innovative measures, agreed at a European level, must help the raw material sector to secure a sustainable and transparent supply of materials. This would ultimately also contribute to improving working and living conditions for people in raw material-producing countries and to preventing negative impacts on the environment.