Countries contributing with a large share to the global supply of raw materials according to the study on the Critical Raw Materials for the EU (2023)

The supply chains of the products that we use are getting increasingly complex, some raw materials or components travel around the globe before ending up in a final product at the consumer. The increased globalisation of supply chains has as a consequence that countries are dependent on trade with one another for access to raw materials or semi-finished products, which can be considered as a factor of supply risk.

The relevance of supply risks has been broadly acknowledged in the supply chains of metals and the technologies in which they are used, such as electric mobility, renewable energy, the IT sector, or aerospace, to name a few. The supply risk of raw materials is assessed via a raw material criticality assessment.

Typical reasons that a raw material can be considered “critical” is that production is concentrated in a single country, where the risk could be higher if this country is associated with poor governance. Other factors of concern are strong demand increases due to technology shifts, as seen in the mobility sector, or high environmental impacts or social concerns (such as child labour or the violation of human rights) within the value chain. These aspects do not only potentially affect the accessibility to raw materials – they may also lead to strong price increases or potential reputation damage.

Common awareness is increasing that not only metals may be critical, but also other types of raw materials and products – such as drugs and medical equipment, as experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the bio-based sector has only played a minor role in published criticality assessments.

The European Commission prepares every three years a list of raw materials that are critical for the European economy, based on an evaluation of 70 raw materials, including metals, industrial and construction minerals, and biotic materials (natural rubber, natural cork, roundwood, sapele wood, and natural teak wood). Whereas none of these biotic materials were considered as “critical” in the 2023 evaluation, the number of supply-risk indicators considered in the assessment and the coverage of the entire bio-based sector is limited.

Does that mean that the concept of raw material criticality is of less relevance to the bio-based sector? Or does the concept of “criticality” mean something different for bio-based materials, compared to metals?

In the EU study, the bio-based materials are evaluated via the same set of indicators as the metals. Other studies that evaluate the criticality of bio-based materials exist as well, such as a criticality study on construction wood based on a framework initially applied to metals, and the BIRD methodology that uses a unique set of indicators to evaluate the criticality of bio-based materials. Up to now, it is unclear whether a common criticality methodology and corresponding data sources can be applied to evaluate the criticality of metals and bio-based resources, or whether distinct methodologies are necessary. To increase our understanding of potential supply risks in the bio-based sector, the CALIMERO project aims to clarify the following aspects:

  • Defining the conceptual relevance of “criticality” to bio-based materials
  • Determination of relevant (supply) risk indicators for bio-based products
  • Understanding of the effects of potential supply risks on the various stakeholders in the bio-based economy
  • Identifying data requirements for a criticality assessment of bio-based materials, and assessing current data availabilities and data gaps
  • Clarifying the role of a criticality evaluation of bio-based materials within a Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment toolbox, also in relation to other assessment methodologies with similar scopes
  • Formulating the pathway from a conceptual approach to concrete tools applicable by industries active in the bio-based economy.

Stay in touch with the CALIMERO project in case you are curious about the ongoing developments in this area, or in other methodological advancements regarding the environmental and social sustainability evaluation of the bio-based economy.