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The big eco dilemma: How rare earth metals have become a thorn in the side of the green agenda

The big eco dilemma: How rare earth metals have become a thorn in the side of the green agenda
The world is getting ever more reliant on rare earth metals as it eyes a more environmentally friendly future. And this is a problem, because we don’t have enough of them and they are massively polluting to process.

You may not be aware of the significance of rare-earth metals (or rare-earth elements) but you should be. They are a specific set of 17 extremely similar heavy metals, and are integral to modern electric and electronic technology, specifically renewable energy, computers, lasers, glass, magnets and various industrial processes.

But they do not come without problems. Their extraction, processing and refining are having major geo-political repercussions, and there is also their slow depletion, combined with careless, wasteful disposal (in our era of planned obsolescence) to consider. 

Nevertheless, our usage of rare-earth metals continues to rise, even as their sourcing grows more dubious, creating an environmental catastrophe of horrific proportions.

What makes the conundrum more pressing is their widespread use in so-called green technology. A brief list of some of the items which require them gives you an indication of their significance. For example, they are used in magnets, batteries, catalytic converters, motors, turbines, medical devices, smart phones, power tools, camera lenses, laptops, wind turbines, electric or hybrid cars, x-ray machines, and guided missiles, to name a few. Even a single iPhone contains eight different rare earth metals.

And yet, considering both their necessity to industrial society and the rather stark-yet-hidden after-effects of their production, rare-earth metals remain relatively little known and seldom discussed.

At least 80% of rare-earth metal extraction and processing takes place in China, and roughly half of that occurs in a city of over two million people called Baotou, north-west of Beijing. Once extracted from the mines, the minerals are shipped to industrial facilities where they are divided into oxides, metals and magnets. Environmentally speaking, that is where the real trouble begins, but that is only one of the worrying issues with this resource.

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Firstly, there is depletion. A good example is the coastal Greenland mining town of Ivigtût, which had been the primary source of the world’s supply of a mineral known as cryolite, until it ran out of it in 1987

China claims that supplies of certain crucial metals (such as dysprosium and lanthanum) are set to be exhausted within 20 years. Estimates say that 26 percent of the earth’s extractable copper and 19 percent of zinc are lost in landfill.

Additionally, if the entire world was using the same level of technology as developed nations, the total extraction of all rare-earth metals from the Earth would not be able to meet demand. While economic models of growth are magically ‘infinite’, the actual resource is finite.

Secondly there is the issue of the production supply chain. The current reliance on China is fragile and has potential for disruption. In the US, the Biden administration seems to have some awareness of this issue, and as part of its enthusiastic climate and technology policy has prioritized the domestic production of rare-earth metals in an effort to revitalize its former semiconductor industry.

The US is currently 100% reliant on foreign sources for 20 different minerals, and heavily reliant for at least 50 more. With this in mind, it is perhaps no surprise the Department of Energy confirmed a $30 million initiative into researching US domestic supply of rare earth and other important minerals (typically cobalt and lithium).

The strangely paradoxical Biden plan seems to involve massive investments and promises in climate change technology, while at the same time taking a harder stance against eastern geopolitical ‘national security threats’ – such as China – in a complicated and bizarre strategy of attack and reliance.

This not the first time the US has attempted to revive its own rare earth production (in the 1980s it was largely self-reliant). While it is understandable for the Biden administration to reminisce about the days of a fully autonomous supply chain, rebuilding the system faces overpowering environmental, economic, and political obstacles.

Beyond sourcing the minerals and the environmental concerns, competing with China is no easy feat, especially when it has created an industrial processing infrastructure which the US has dismantled. Why did it do that? Because of the horrific environmental cost, partially, as well as the irresistible ‘great bargain’ of international cheap labour. It would take at least a decade to build that infrastructure and require massive levels of production.

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With a certain air of desperation, it has been suggested that the best course is to work with allies (ie exploit partners) such as the European Union (which would mean polluting Europe and shipping the product to the US).

Many regions, including within the EU, do indeed have an abundance of these resources. However, they either lack the expertise in extraction and processing, or perhaps more wisely, lack the willingness to destroy and blacken their landscape and poison their citizens.

And that brings us to the highly ironic price of the proposed ‘green initiative’ - that of extreme pollution and abject environmental disaster. There are many highly toxic derivatives that come from the extraction and processing of these metals. It is highly disruptive to ecosystems, while releasing hazardous acidic and radioactive by-products into the atmosphere and the water table.

Rare earth ore often contains radioactive thorium, but in order to process, the metal requires an even deadlier cocktail of toxins. Processing a single ton produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste. In Baotou, there is now the world’s largest mine tailings pond. It is a vast death-lake of poisonous, grey, slime, and for 20 years it has been leaking its toxic contents into the groundwater supply. In Bayan Obo, where the Baotou rare earths are processed, sheep grow abnormally (they grow extra rows of teeth, are unable to close their mouths and their wool is ugly).

Crops wither and the drinking water has a horrid smell which blackens gums and teeth. Locals die from cancer at an inordinate rate. The mine itself is a massive, apocalyptic black crater – much larger than the lonely nearby apartment block – 1,000 metres deep and spanning 48 sq km. It is a landscape of smoky smelters and dark, lifeless, mud.

China has introduced new, stricter environmental regulatory policies as of late, and is showing signs of simply becoming sick of poisoning its own land and people in pursuit of these minerals. It has attempted to outsource its own production to corporate-colony-mines in Africa, where no doubt – if successful – invaluable rare wildlife already nearing extinction can look forward to poisoned water, radioactive waste, and smoke-stack horizons.

Looking at the rare-earth metals situation brings up many tricky and politically unwelcome questions about our supposed low-carbon future. How will we handle waste water for that level of demand? Who exactly will be willing to poison themselves and their land, at the lowest prices going? How can a limited mineral resource be considered a sustainable solution? And how can it be considered environmental when it is one of the most polluting processes imaginable?

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Based on growth estimates, China may not even be able to meet its own domestic demand, let alone the increasing global demand. According to the United Nations’ Conference on Trade and Development estimates, global demand will soon be at a level beyond what is physically possible to provide. What exactly is the plan to meet that demand, when China is already placing environmental restrictions on current production levels? If America truly plans to produce these metals themselves, the prices will not be competitive with the Chinese product (somewhat hilariously due to the stricter environmental regulations in America and Europe).

190 countries have signed the historic Paris Climate Agreement, which plans to ‘decarbonize’ the future and introduce an age of wind and solar electric power. How many of the signatories even knew the name Baotou, let alone its relevance, or could even imagine its bleak and poisoned landscape? There is great irony in the American plan to begin domestic rare-earth resource mining as part of an ‘environmental policy’.

The world must ask itself just how thoroughly and realistically the green future proposed by media and political technocrats is being considered, and not being influenced by trendy virtue signalling. Everything comes at a price, and every helpful technological path is accompanied by a negative side-effect. But there is variance in the type of price you must pay, and nuanced judgement must be applied in choosing the lesser of two evils. This is extremely hard when one of the choices is fashionable, or enjoys media support, and the dark facets of its downside are not widely known.

There are many looming implications for the future when considering a shortage or depletion of a precious, limited resource in which our dependence, globally, is only rising.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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