We live in an age faced with monumental challenge; climate change, environmental degradation, mass extinction, all change largely driven by human activity on this small blue planet. Clearly our insatiable consumption of fossil based energy, is the principle driver of climate instability, and directly or indirectly associated with environmental degradation and the extinction event we are living through. The climate wars are hopefully coming to an end and the majority of us are united in desiring a clean energy future, but just how clean and green are the energy alternatives? Solar panels, wind turbines, E-vehicles and hi-grade lithium batteries are all dependent on rare earth elements to provide an energy alternative.
Prized for their magnetic qualities, in one sense rare earth elements are not that rare, in that, they are present in small quantities in many geological formations. They are elements found in association with many others but often in only small amounts . What is difficult, is the extraction process for these elements. Large quantities of earth needs to be dug up and processed to extract quiet small quantities of these invaluable metals, in a process which itself is energy intensive. In the process, you have to deal with the usual degradation to landscape caused by mining, compounded by the extraction process, which for these elements is notoriously destructive, often using acid leaching and large quantities of water. To date, most rare element mining has been taking place in China, a country not noted for its rigorous environmental standards. Mining of rare earth in China has been profitable and destructive, generating tons of toxic waste and devastating large areas of land, including once productive farmland. (check out this article on the toxic legacy of rare earth mining). Even worse, the military junta in Myanmar now funds it’s continuing abuses through rare earth mining. Australia is not off the hook either, when we mine rare earths but then export the extraction process to countries like Malaysia, exposing our Asian neighbour to a potential environmental problem we don’t want in our own back yard.
What such mining has allowed, is, for China to come out on top of the technology race and through careful manipulation of the market they have established a virtual monopoly on rare earth and the technology that requires it. China encouraged tech manufacturers to off shore their manufacturing to China, to utilise its cheap labour, but in doing so, countries like America managed to emasculate their own technology hardware, and clean energy industries. Here in Australia, it could be argued we never even bothered to invest in developing such industry in the first place, instead continuing to support an undeniably climate destructive fossil fuel industry.
I have recently been diving deep into the labyrinth of clean energy and digital technology and its inherent reliance on rare earths and it has been an eye opening experience. Here in our affluent western comfort, we take for granted our ability to make the switch from fossil fuels to greener alternatives, with the real cost of such technology being born out of sight and out of mind. I am not and never will, advocate for a continuation of the fossil fuel industry, far from it, the sooner we switch to energy alternatives the better, but I am advocating for informed choice and responsible development of these industries. Not farming them out to, human rights and environmental abusers. The geo-political implications of control of these elements are alarming.
Right now the world is experiencing a rare metals rush, with demand for the precious minerals experiencing exponential demand, but in the rush for clean energy, we really must not lose sight of other environmental values and goals, nor should we be willing to sacrifice social justice. I do want to see mining of rare earths, but I want that mining to occur under strict environmental controls, not a free for all, that is willing to sacrifice irreplaceable ecosystems for short term wealth. And lets face it, it is not the good of the environment or the good of the planet that is driving this demand for rare earths, it is the wealth that they can bring. Greed has gotten us into the mess we are currently living through, surely we can be smart enough, not to repeat the mistakes of the past or worse, add whole new stuff ups to our repertoire.
As part of this dive into rare earth I have been reading Guillanume Pitron’s fascinating expose of the rare earths industry; The Rare Metals War: the dark side of clean energy and digital technology. Aside from providing a brief explanation of rare earth minerals, their properties, and importance to new technology, Pitron exposes the complex geo-political complexities that are tied up in the race to source such crucial metals. What emerges is, the truth that technology alone will not save our planet.
I confess reading this book has left me feeling conflicted and intently aware of my western, middle class privilege. I take my access to technology of all forms, largely for granted. I may have a sense of gratitude to a degree, but largely I don’t even think about my everyday access to information via a laptop or a smart phone, both devices reliant on rare earths. My continued ability to have the comfort of electricity will also be dependent to a large extent on rare earths.
Pitron makes a number of powerful arguments in Rare Metals War:
- Stop outsourcing the mining and extraction of these elements to countries with poor environmental controls.
- instead take responsibility for their production by mining in countries with well established environmental controls, our own back yards in other words.
- Stop purchasing products from producers with poor environmental and social records
- Start purchasing products that last or are repairable or recyclable – demand the right to repair!
The whole rare earth dilemma was recently bought home to me, when a friend received notification that a mining company had been granted government approval to begin exploration on her land. A pristine piece of farmland nestled between national park and state forest and at the head waters of a major river system, no one in their right mind could ever consider the destruction of that environment justified. My friend an advocate for regenerative farming has been working on restoring the land, protecting its productivity and protecting precious native flora and fauna in the process, including endangered and threatened species like koala and quolls. Notification of mining exploration is devastating. Here in Australia we are going to see a rush on finding, mining and extracting these elements but we have to do it in a way that does not defeat the purpose of the technology they support. My hope is that we can use our already well developed mining industry to find ways to move forward that offers jobs to displaced workers in the fossil fuel industry while also minimising damage to our fragile ecology. We can do things better, but only if we have a disciplined, science lead approach.
There is some irony in the phrase; rare earth, for the Earth is indeed rare and should be treated as such.
Reading Guillanume Pitron’s The Rare Metals War: the dark side of clean energy and digital technology has been an unsettling experience but a reading experience I am glad I have had. It very definitely makes a good read for the Gaia/nature challenge, certainly gives a lot to consider in terms of how we move forward in this digital age we now occupy and the environmental challenges we now face.
From the blurb:
The resources race is on. Powering our digital lives and green technologies are some of the Earth’s most precious metals — but they are running out. And what will happen when they do?
The green-tech revolution has been lauded as the silver bullet to a new world. One that is at last free of oil, pollution, shortages, and cross-border tensions. Drawing on six years of research across a dozen countries, this book cuts across conventional green thinking to probe the hidden, dark side of green technology.
By breaking free of fossil fuels, we are in fact setting ourselves up for a new dependence — on rare metals such as cobalt, gold, and palladium. They are essential to electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels, our smartphones, computers, tablets, and other everyday connected objects. China has captured the lion’s share of the rare metals industry, but consumers know very little about how they are mined and traded, or their environmental, economic, and geopolitical costs.
The Rare Metals War is a vital exposé of the ticking time-bomb that lies beneath our new technological order. It uncovers the reality of our lavish and ambitious environmental quest that involves risks as formidable as those it seeks to resolve.
4 thoughts on “Rare Earth – the dilemma of green energy and digital technology”
Thank you for writing such an indepth article about rare earth metals and green technology. I am concerned about this issue too. There are some alternatives to using rare earth metals. A overview of the subject can be found here https://rmi.org/rmi-reality-check-greener-friendlier-alternatives-exist-for-rare-minerals-in-batteries/
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Thanks for the link Suzanne will check it out, really interested in alternatives.
There is certainly a lot to take in with this one. Thank you for another view point
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I was surprised by what I read, I have to admit. Fell down a rare earth rabbit hole with articles and that book, so much information.