Kazakhstan, EU Seek Touchpoints in Critical Mineral Development

ASTANA – The cooperation between the European Union (EU) and Kazakhstan in critical minerals has a promising future, forging sustainable solutions in energy and transport. This was the focus of an event hosted on Nov. 14 by Brussels-based EURACTIV media outlet, exploring cost-effective and sustainable supply of critical raw materials and decarbonization of energy production. 

Charles Szumski (moderator), Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, Dumitru Fornea, Axel Goethals, Kanat Sharlapayev. Photo credit: The Astana Times.

Supported by Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry, panel discussions were timed to coincide with the Raw Materials Week, an annual event organized by the European Commission. It takes place on Nov. 13-17 in Brussels.  

“I see progress in relations between EU and Kazakhstan, as well as the potential for their development. Kazakhstan is already a big producer and a supplier of critical materials to the EU. This may help us in implementing our major projects,” said Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, a member of the European Parliament (MEP) and former foreign minister of Poland. 

Kazakhstan was the first non-EU member state to be visited during Cimoszewicz’s term in office from 2001 to 2005. “It was my decision because I believed in the country’s great potential. I’m glad that EU leaders have recently understood how big the possibilities are in developing economic cooperation with Kazakhstan,” he noted. 

Axel Goethals, CEO of the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS), underlined that this is the right moment for the EU to focus on fostering economic links with the Central Asian region and “putting the resources not to miss the opportunity in cooperation with Kazakhstan.”

Critical minerals development 

Out of the 34 critical materials listed by the EU, Kazakhstan produces 18, said Kazakh Minister of Industry and Construction, Kanat Sharlapayev. These include bismuth, gallium, rare earth elements, silicon, vanadium, tungsten, tin, tantalum, niobium, magnesium, lithium, indium, graphite, and cobalt.  

Critical materials, he noted, represent a blueprint for a new chapter in the EU-Kazakhstan cooperation. 

“Our country is not just rich in terms of the mineral base. It has been a reliable partner for the EU, particularly contributing to its energy security through oil supplies and to the nuclear energy sector through uranium supplies. Now, Kazakhstan is ready and committed to integrate itself with the value chain of critical materials, which was aptly named critical for our green energy transition,” he said. 

Sharlapayev noted an ongoing expansion of cooperation in this area with a raft of European companies and emerging opportunities supported by the government in geology’s digitalization and informatization. One such opportunity is the development of a unified platform with a single-window principle for investors and subsoil users at minerals.gov.kz.

Kazakhstan is also the world’s 10th largest copper producer. “We are making serious efforts and significant investments towards increasing copper production. With the preexisting expertise, we are working on a large expansion program,” he said. 

Its relevance, according to the minister, is largely driven by the energy transition and economic decarbonization.

Sharlapayev also brought an example of titanium, a critical material, which is widely used in the aircraft manufacturing industry. He underscored its very limited supply and the need to facilitate it. 

Nuclear energy 

Another critical mineral, thorium, can significantly contribute to the development of the nuclear energy industry. 

“Thorium clearly requires a lot more research. Hopefully, as more examples of its successful use as a fuel for nuclear reactors become available, I think the technology will be able to create additional demand and the niche, in which Kazakhstan will play an important role,” he said.  

As for uranium, he added, its demand is linked to the development of the nuclear industry, particularly for the development of modular reactors instead of conventional nuclear power stations. 

Sharlapayev noted that modular reactors can address one of the big problems with electricity for large countries or for countries with less developed infrastructure.

The development of the nuclear industry can take multiple directions.

Cimoszewicz recalled his participation in global conferences, where Kazakhstan “laid a foundation for the promotion of the idea in the world’s non-nuclearization.” In the international arena, the country is known for its longstanding commitment to nuclear disarmament. 

Speaking about geopolitical circumstances, he emphasized that Kazakhstan has good reasons for doing business and developing cooperation with its key neighbors and caring about the highest possible level of independence in its decision-making, which requires a balanced foreign policy. 

Green hydrogen 

The Kazakh minister also drew attention to the project on green hydrogen production in the Mangystau Region in Kazakhstan.

The Hyrasia One project, carried out by German-Swedish Svevind Energy Group, involves building and operating a desalination plant with a 255,000 cubic meter capacity per day, a 40-gigawatt renewable energy station (wind, solar), and a 20-gigawatt water electrolysis production, mainly for export or domestic consumption. 

“The world has a lot of expertise in transport of ammonia, for example, which is hydrogen in its essence in terms of its chemical composition. For ammonia transportation, we already have enough infrastructure,” he noted. 

Transport infrastructure 

Dumitru Fornea, a member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), stressed the need to improve infrastructure.  

“Infrastructure should be a key point. We need to focus on the corridors leading to the Caspian region. I believe in strategic interdependence, not necessarily in strategic autonomy, because territories like Europe will never have the resources of titanium or uranium, or other raw materials in necessary concentration, like Kazakhstan,” he noted. 

In his opinion, Kazakhstan should have an alternative or diversified path to the European market. 

Climate change

Kazakhstan’s climate change agenda aligns with the European Green Deal, a set of policy initiatives of the European Commission aimed at making the European Union climate-neutral by 2050.

Step by step, Kazakhstan is also implementing green solutions. This year, the country introduced the carbon neutrality strategy by 2060. In 2021, it adopted the new Environmental Code, and in 2022, it registered its first green party.

“I think Kazakhstan and the EU share the same goals, both committed to carbon neutrality in the long term,” said Sharlapayev. 

He also underlined the need to encourage and educate the young population on responsible water usage. 

Nygmet Ibadildin, chairman of the Department of International Relations at Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research (KIMEP) University, mentioned a well-established network in education with European educational facilities, as well as with professors and students. 

He concluded that it may also be the right time to promote knowledge exchange networks and launch programs aimed at creating jobs in the areas corresponding to the global goals.  

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