From dependence to resilience: tackling the critical raw materials challenge in the European Union’s energy transition

by Isabella Santillo

Provenance of the research: 

  1. Title of thesis/research question: From dependence to resilience: tackling the critical raw materials challenge in the European Union’s energy transition
  1. Type of thesis: Masters
  1. University affiliation: Roma Tre University
  1. Research timeframe: July 2023

1. Abstract/Summary: 

In recent years, the world accelerated its shift toward more sustainable energy systems in line with climate goals. The centrality of energy in the priorities of nations and political agendas has also increased, given its role as the bedrock of societal development and its growing politicization. In the aftermath of the Ukraine war outbreak, the European Union had to confront a significant vulnerability due to reliance on third countries, particularly Russia. As part of its strategy, the EU focused on renewable energies, which, however, pose new challenges.

In the first chapter, an attempt was made to understand the polysemic and complex concept of energy security through a review of an illustrative part of the literature, highlighting not only economic but also political, geopolitical, and social aspects. Some data regarding the energy mix of the European Union and its level of energy dependence on third countries were then presented. The EU’s strategy to address this structural vulnerability and the policies adopted over the years were analysed, leading up to the most recent developments.

The second chapter contains the main aspect of this work: the relationship between critical materials, such as cobalt, graphite, and rare earths, and the global and European energy and digital transition. It sought to answer three fundamental questions: what these materials are and for which technologies they are necessary; who the key players of an extremely concentrated market are; what environmental and social problems are associated with the extractive sector and how to pursue a “just transition”. 

The third and final chapter focuses again on the European Union, highlighting its extreme vulnerability to these materials crucial for achieving renewable deployment goals, climate neutrality, and energy independence. The EU’s policy strategy to limit this new dependence, especially on China, and assert itself as a global actor is presented.

2. What were the most important or surprising findings of your work?

One of the most important findings of my work is that the European Union has been aware of the importance of critical raw materials for a decade, and repeatedly recognized the dependency on third countries for their supply. The EU is now seriously starting to focus on avoiding such dependency, which could slow down significantly the energy transitions and the net zero goal. Possible solutions are diversity of supply, a higher level of recycling, R&D, and internal extraction. 

3. What did you struggle with during the research and/or writing process, and how did you overcome these issues?

The biggest struggle during the research was finding a comprehensive definition of energy security to explain why critical raw materials are so important. I tried to present an accurate review of the most representative literature and highlight the positive connection between energy security and energy transition. Another issue was to keep up with the EU policies since it was a developing subject. I included all the most representative publications and gave an overview of the legal and political scenario. 

4. What are you doing now, and what are your plans for the coming year?

I am currently enrolled in a II level University Master Course at Politecnico di Milano named “RIDEF 2.0: reinventing energy: renewables, decentralization, efficiency and strong sustainability”. I would like to do my internship in a company involved in the energy sector and the renewable energy transition. I want to develop a strong knowledge and a set of skills that will help me contribute to a just transition, ideally impacting the EU policies. 

5. Following the above, did your research impact those plans in any way?

The research increased my interest in the energy sector and in the perspectives of the energy transition. It made me understand how complex and ambivalent the process is, and how many trade-offs we need to face. I now think that it is fundamental to take different points of view, which is the reason why I chose the Master Course: we will focus on energy policy, sustainable energy generation, networks and markets, sustainable buildings, cities and mobility, and industry, process and product sustainability.

6. Do you have any advice for people who are undertaking this type of research?

The challenges and uncertainties facing the energy system are at their greatest and the narrow window for deploying green technology and facing climate change is closing. I think it’s important to have a wide understanding of the challenges our generation must tackle and to consider all the new vulnerabilities. Studying these subjects from an economic, political, sociological, and technological point of view will maybe bring us to sustainable solutions and a brighter future. 

Author Bio: 

Isabella is passionate about sustainability in its broader meaning and wants to contribute to a “just transition”. She is a Master’s graduate in Environmental and Development Economics at RomaTre University after a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and International Relations. During her studies, she developed a keen interest in the energy sector and its implications in the fight against climate change. In her research, she tried to identify the challenges connected with critical raw materials: energy security implications, the role in the renewables deployment, social and environmental consequences, policy scenarios, focusing on the European Union.

Categories Student Work

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