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EU’s proposed rules on battery sustainability ‘welcome but risk over-regulating industry’

Lithium-ion battery cells of different types. Image: PI Berlin.

Proposed updates to EU legislation on batteries that aim to address some of the issues associated with Europe’s supply chain have been welcomed by trade industry association RECHARGE, albeit with the suggestion that they may be too complex in their current form.

The European Commission has proposed that mandatory requirements be put in place covering the use of responsibly sourced materials and required minimum levels of recycled materials, performance and durability, labelling and carbon footprint and that collection and recycling targets be set and adhered to.

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The new rules state that batteries placed on the EU market should be “sustainable, high-performing and safe all along their entire life cycle,” including the use of materials obtained without violation of human rights and produced with minimal environmental impact.

Manufacturers and suppliers of industrial and electric vehicle batteries must give carbon footprint declarations from 1 July 2024 onwards and from the beginning of January 2026 will have to label their devices in accordance with carbon intensity performance categories, with maximum carbon footprint thresholds to be introduced by 1 July 2027.

The use of hazardous materials such mercury and cadmium must be restricted, and from the beginning of January 2030, there will be minimum recycled content stipulations for the lead, cobalt, lithium and nickel they use. These levels, set at 12% for cobalt, 85% for lead, 4% for lithium and 4% for nickel, will be increased from the beginning of 2035 onwards to levels that include 10% for lithium and 20% for cobalt. In September, the EC added lithium for the first time to a list of Critical Raw Materials that the continent needs to secure the supply of, joining nickel and cobalt which were already among the materials on there. 

Industry had called for due diligence and carbon footprint rules

Patrick de Metz, president at RECHARGE, which is a European industry group for the advanced rechargeable and lithium batteries value chain, welcomed the proposed introduction of carbon footprint and due diligence measures into the EU framework. RECHARGE has been long advocating for this to happen, De Metz, who is also governmental and environmental affairs director at France headquartered battery maker Saft, said.

“Due diligence and carbon intensity were clearly missing in this comprehensive framework so far, undermining the efforts of European actors. A carbon footprint and due diligence measure have the potential to not only prevent underperforming batteries from entering the EU market but to work on product-level on the EU’s climate-neutrality and sustainability objectives,” de Metz said.

The EU has invested several billion Euros into establishing a homegrown manufacturing base for batteries on the continent, including the creation of the European Battery Alliance which has supported multi-gigawatt factory plans from established players and startups including Northvolt in Sweden and Germany and Verkor, based in France.

RECHARGE pointed out in a statement sent to that since the creation of the Alliance in 2017, around a dozen European gigafactories have been announced and investment in the European battery sector reached EU60 billion last year. The industry could create about 800,000 jobs by 2023 at the current pace.

The introduction of the Commission’s proposal is aimed not only at helping the EU meet its climate goals and facilitating the European Green New Deal, but was also described by the EC as essential to the establishment of a sustainable and economically competitive industry. The legal certainty that the directives could provide would help unlock investment in the value chain and stimulate growth in production capacity.

Claude Chanson, general manager at RECHARGE said the proposal “represents the next milestone in delivering on the Strategic Action Plan on Batteries”. Chanson added that it “puts European policymakers in the unique position to now translate the EU’s vision for sustainable, innovative and competitive batteries “made in Europe” into a meaningful legislative framework that will close the gaps in existing legislation and can level the playing field with international actors”.

EU policy on batteries has broadly been unchanged since its Battery Directive was published in 2006 and RECHARGE welcomed the transformation of the Directive into a Europe-wide regulatory framework. The trade group described it as a first step to create more clarity and predictability.

However, the trade group cautioned that the many new rules and measures proposed may be difficult for stakeholders to fully grasp, containing as they do a “high level of complexity”. RECHARGE warned against “over-regulating fast-paced, innovative industries such as batteries or electric mobility”.

“Closing the gap with international competition will depend on long-term investments and a coherent regulatory framework,” RECHARGE president Patrick de Metz said.

The sixth annual Energy Storage Summit hosted by Solar Media takes place in February and March 2021. See the event's website for more details

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