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Saxon raw materials to make us more independent

The EU and the federal government want to strengthen domestic raw material production. Saxony can benefit from the growing demand and build a new perspective for the future.

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Ein Bergmann hält ein Stück Erz in der Hand.
In a miner's habit, Saxony's Economics Minister Martin Dulig holds a piece of ore interspersed with lithium. Dulig launched Saxony's raw materials dialogue in Berlin on Monday. © dpa/Robert Michael

By Wolfgang Mulke

Freiberg in the Ore Mountains is hardly known in other regions of Germany. On the other hand, the name of the city attracts attention in distant regions such as Moçambique or Mongolia. This is because some of the experts in the mining industry there have acquired their knowledge at the Technical University Bergakademie Freiberg acquired. "Half of our students come from abroad, explains Klaus Dieter Barbknecht, rector of the university.

He is sounding the alarm because, unlike other mining locations, the industry ekes out a marginal existence in this country. "Mining has not been an issue in Germany for decades," says Barbknecht. That will have consequences when it starts up again. "We'll be short of people," he fears.

And it should really get going again, especially in Saxony. Martin Dulig, Saxony's Minister of Economic Affairs, has been busy promoting this strategy, this time in Berlin. Entrepreneurs, politicians and experts from the federal and state governments met at the Saxon state representation in the capital to discuss Saxony's raw materials strategy. The state government adopted the concept last December. The deposits of urgently needed raw materials, including sustainable ones such as wood, as well as the recycling of valuable materials are to point the way to an economic future. "This is an opportunity for our economy," the minister emphasized.

Saxony and especially the Ore Mountains are rich in raw materials. The spectrum is wide, ranging from lithium or cobalt to tungsten, indium, fluorine, tin and silver. Not to mention the wood of the forests. There are quartz sand deposits, stones and earths. All these raw materials will be in even greater demand in the future than they are today, because they are in short supply in the face of rising global demand.

"Demand is increasing exorbitantly," also says Anne Lauenroth, commodities expert at the Federation of German Industries (BDI). The experience of recent years also shows the susceptibility of supplies to crises. "Raw materials are increasingly becoming a geopolitical pawn," observes Lauenroth.

Shortage of skilled workers puts the brakes on new mountain talk

Saxony's deposits can help reduce dependence on other countries. The president of the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR)Ralph Watzel, believes that this is impossible. "The return to a self-sufficient economy is nonsense," he says, dampening overly high expectations. But before there can be a renewed boom, a number of hurdles have to be cleared, both bureaucratic and social.

The latter lead, for example, to a shortage of engineers or other skilled workers. The image of mining could be better. "We need to create raw materials awareness," believes Thorsten Dierks, head of the Raw Materials Mining Association. According to him, there is a lack of knowledge in the public consciousness about the importance of raw materials, which in the end are a basis of prosperity. There is a lack of positive stories about them, such as the fact that environmental standards in Germany are far higher than in other mining countries or that domestic mining is much more climate-friendly than importing the materials.

One billion euros from the federal government for a raw materials fund

Other hurdles are no longer within Saxony's sphere of influence. Approval procedures take a long time, and subsidies in this country are comparatively expensive. According to German Economics Minister Robert Habeck, that's also a result of Europe's high environmental and social standards. "You also need declining hands," says Habeck. The German government is not alone in wanting to support investments in the raw materials sector with state funding, as France and Italy also do. Habeck wants to make between 500 million euros and one billion euros available for a raw materials fund.

The three countries want to cooperate more closely in the supply of critical raw materials. This was decided by their ministers on Monday. They also want to jointly drive forward the circular economy. Meanwhile, the EU Commission is also preparing legislation on critical raw materials. For example, approval procedures are to be made easier. It wants to reduce Europe's dependence on imports. For Saxony, these are signs of hope, because the soil here contains precisely the ores and earths that are in demand. France's Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire counts lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper and silicon among them. "They are necessary for the green industry," he notes.

Saxony's Mining Minister Dulig already reports an increasing number of applications for mining licenses. Currently, there are already 220 activities, he says. "As a rule, the applicants do not see German investors behind them," Dulig regrets. "The state government supports the development and use of domestic raw material sources through mining extraction, strengthens raw material recycling and is strongly committed to the use of renewable raw materials," says the minister, who also knows he is in agreement with the federal government on this point. Habeck's State Secretary Franziska Brandner assures support for extraction, further processing and recycling. "Saxony has special potential in all three areas," she emphasizes.

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