13 August 2021

The dangers of green tech’s dependence on rare-earth elements

By Chris Skidmore MP

Our modern economy could barely survive without rare-earth materials. They are in everything from mobile phones to computer hard drives. They are key components in precision-guided missile technologies and next-generation warfare technological capabilities, and they are crucial to green technologies like electric cars that will help steer the world to Net Zero. And yet this precious resource comes with a price – both for the environment and for geopolitical relations.

Since the 1980s, China has been mining for rare-earth materials, that is the fifteen elements in the lanthanides category on the periodic table, as well as scandium and yttrium. The mainland of China is estimated to be home to 35% of the world’s reserves of rare-earth materials, and today it accounts for nearly 90% of global mining operations. Large regions of China’s southern provinces including Guangxi, Guandong, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangxi and Sichuan are heavily dependent on the mining and processing of these rare-earth minerals for economic development, allowing China to produce 120,000 metric tons of total rare-earth minerals in 2018 alone, dwarfing the 15,000 metric tons developed in the United States. Additionally, China has begun to use its diplomatic and economic power to obtain exclusive mining rights throughout large portions of African nations in exchange for promising to build vast infrastructure projects such as highways, bridges, and train lines. Specifically in 2019 Kenya and China came to an agreement that would see investment totalling $666 million in the African nation to build a tech city, highway and railroad.

Mining for these rare-earth materials is expensive and costly to the environment and surrounding inhabited land. To mine for some of these materials, large amounts of ammonium sulfate, ammonium chloride and other environmentally harmful chemicals are injected directly into the ground to separate the rare-earths from other parts of the soil. Much like fishing with dynamite, this has led to extensive destruction and pollution in the surrounding landscape, forcing companies and local governments to eventually put tarps over wastewater ponds which are highly contaminated. It would take a single landslide or other accident for these highly contaminated pools to spill into groundwater and reach local drinking taps.

In Jiangxi province alone, the Chinese Ministry of the Industry and Information Technology in 2019 estimated that it would cost 38 billion yuan or $5.5 billion to clean up the mined landscape. There are estimates that the landscape and environment will not recover for another 50 to 100 years after clean-up efforts have been completed. Long exposure, much like the lead paint epidemic, have serious effects on human life and pose great health risks. Pollutants from the mining operations themselves also enter the local atmosphere and elements such as cadmium and lead have been recorded to be airborne in the areas surrounding the rare-earth mines. Bone cancers, central nervous system deterioration and respiratory issues are all serious possibilities when prolonged exposure to these elements occurs. The processing of these rare-earth minerals, often at the same site as the mine itself for more efficient turnaround, can also lead to serious environmental and health concerns.

In Guangdong province the situation is just as dire, but the location of the mines are also of a serious concern, as they are near the Dongjiang River, which provides much of its drinking water to the cities of Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. To compound the issue even further, according to a 2016 report by the Hong Kong-based China Water Risk, the unregulated black market for rare-earth materials was estimated to be at least around 32,980 tonnes. It goes without saying that risk of environmental contamination is exponentially increased within the black market.

Despite the obvious risks, rare-earth mining will not stop. It simply cannot. The march of progress demands it and we have become far too reliant on the technological abilities the materials provide. Even during a relatively down pricing year of 2018, Ganzhou province alone received a total revenues of around 28 billion yuan or $4 billion USD.

The problems facing the Chinese and African mines are not simply contained in a far-away land, as both the UK and the US have begun to increase more nationalised rare earth mining operations, in a bid to reduce Chinese reliance on such valuable materials. This may help to drive innovation within rare earth mining and investment, helping to pave the way to cleaner opportunities to extract these essential elements. In the UK, Pensana Rare Earth is intending to build a facility for magnets used in electric vehicles and wind turbines, in Yorkshire. This facility will become the first UK-based rare-earth materials processing facility and Pensana has claimed that it would be built as the “world’s first sustainable magnet metal supply chain.” The facility is planned to process minerals mined from Lononjo, Angola in southern Africa, which in turn is said to be powered from the low-carbon hydroelectric dam in Luaca. In the United States, President Joe Biden has earmarked $30 million of the sweeping $2 trillion new infrastructure bill for research into and developing rare-earth mining on US soil. While this $30 million is dwarfed by the $46 billion dedicated to renewable energy manufacturing, in addition to the $147 billion dedicated to boosting the electric vehicle market, all these technologies require rare-earth materials.

Achieving net zero is essential if we have any hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, yet we need to recognise also that it is also a fine line we must tread. With an increase in green technologies comes a necessary increase in rare-earth mining. We cannot assume that green technologies themselves are entirely green: we need to be honest also about the trade offs that are being made to establish their future market dominance, recognising that their sustainability rests upon the continued production of rare-earth elements. This is not yet a problem, and indeed future innovation and technology may one day break free from its dependence on rare-earth elements, yet it has the potential to become one sooner than we think.

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Chris Skidmore MP was UK Science Minister between 2018-2020 and Energy Minister in 2019. He is a Senior Fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Government at Harvard Kennedy School researching Net Zero strategies.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.