That’s from an article by Simon Ings in the New Scientist – Why using rare metals to clean up the planet is no cheap fix, about a book by French journalist and filmmaker Guillaume Pitron now translated as The Rare Metals War: the dark side of clean energy and digital technologies.
Oliver Balch in Literary Review reviews the book also along with Wars of the Interior by Joseph Zárate, translated from Spanish.
- Before the Renaissance, humans had found uses for seven metals. During the industrial revolution, this increased to a mere dozen. Today, we have found uses for all 90-odd of them, and some are very rare. Neodymium and gallium, for instance, are found in iron ore, but there is 1200 times less neodymium and up to 2650 times less gallium [on the planet] than there is iron.
To get one solitary kilogram of lutetium you need to crush, extract and refine it from 1,200 tonnes of rock.
Seventeen of those 90 minerals are the concern of Pitron in relation to ‘clean’ energy and digital technologies.
Rare earth metals are toxic to mine and toxic to refine. In China:
- 10 per cent of its arable land is contaminated by heavy metals, 80 per cent of its groundwater isn’t fit for consumption and air pollution contributes to around 1.6 million deaths a year there, according to Pitron
The Lancet says 1.24 million deaths in China a year, so, whichever, it’s a lot.
Presumably air pollution goes well beyond rare earth metals, but in Inner Mongolia Pitron:
- visits the Weikuang Dam, which holds back ‘10 square kilometres of toxic effluent’. Cancer, strokes, heart conditions: the health effects on the local population are ghastly. In one nearby village, locals talk of children growing up with no teeth.
There are concerns about how much power is used in metal extraction. In the case of cobalt, the concerns also go to child labour exploitation amounting to slavery. See:
- Children mining cobalt in slave-like conditions as global demand for battery material surges
- When subterranean slavery supports sustainability transitions? power, patriarchy, and child labor in artisanal Congolese cobalt mining
- Elon Musk’s worst nightmare: child labor and cobalt supply
- Dirty Rare Metals: Digging Deeper into the Energy Transition
Those are from 2017-18, the last one is by Pitron. However, I have heard of this concern on ABC Radio National as recently as the last two weeks.
A UNICEF estimate made in 2014 found that 40,000 children were toiling illegally in Congolese mines. That is thought to be a significant underestimate.
Andrew Forrest in his Boyer Lectures Rebooting Australia — How ethical entrepreneurs can help shape a better future addressed the problem of labour exploitation in supply chains in his third lecture, The economics of inequality. In the first lecture he expressed a clear preference for hydrogen over batteries for cleaning up transport. From memory his reasoning was that batteries are made from elements which are rare, whereas hydrogen is plentiful. Forrest thought that if we make a paradigm shift in transport technology we should be looking at long term sustainability.
China currently produces the vast of rare earth metals, said to be 95%, but it was not always so. KIRKUS Reviews tells the tale:
During most of the 20th century, American rare metal mines led the world but produced immense chemical and radioactive pollution. The mines were in constant trouble with the EPA. Then, in the 1990s, China offered to sell ore cheaply (actually at a loss). Because American entrepreneurs realized that Chinese labor was cheap and skilled and not subject to environmental regulation, over time, large numbers of high-tech firms moved operations across the Pacific. China once sold Apple the rare metals that make up the iPhone; today, it manufactures the device. China leads the world in renewable technology production—solar panels, wind turbines, electric-vehicle batteries, etc. This not only requires mining, which is not renewable, but leads to massive pollution. Furthermore, experts calculate that the mining, manufacturing, fueling, and operation of clean energy products generates more, not less, greenhouse gas. “Put simply,” writes the author, “clean energy is a dirty affair. Yet we feign ignorance because we refuse to take stock of the end-to-end production cycle of wind turbines and solar panels.”
The statement ‘experts calculate that the mining, manufacturing, fueling, and operation of clean energy products generates more, not less, greenhouse gas’ demands scrutiny. So far the story I keep coming up with is along the lines of this article:
- The mining industry is responsible for 4-7% of global greenhouse gas emissions – 1% of these are from Scope 1 and 2 emissions, caused directly by mining operations or indirectly through, for example, electricity consumption used to power mines; the remaining 3-6% coming from fugitive methane emissions.
From Wikipedia here is a graph showing the historical trend of global production to 2008:
In 2010 China weaponised its near monopoly of rare earth production to cut off supplies to Japan. Given recent problems with China, the Quad looks to Australia for rare earth elements usually supplied by China.
Australia has significant resources in rare earths and Lynas Corporation is apparently the world’s only big, vertically integrated supplier of rare earths outside of China. Currently the metals are sent to Malaysia for processing.
This image from the Chief Economist’s site in 2019 sums up Australia’s situation:
Recently, addressing the National Press Club, Australia’s new Chief Scientist, Dr Cathy Foley was asked about the issue of Australia having to export rare earths to Malaysia for processing. She said in effect, ‘Watch this space’. Apparently leading edge science is happening in Australia which should make the whole process cleaner and more sustainable.
As a disclaimer, I’m well outside my area of expertise in attempting this article, so if major corrections are needed I will not be surprised. However, I’ll leave with a link to Scott Stephens and Waleed Aly’s latest episode of The Minefield – Does climate change challenge our concept of moral responsibility?
Turgid as usual, but well worthwhile when Dr Danielle Celermajer, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney, and the author of Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future appears later in the program. It’s about individual and collective responsibility to a sustainable planet, having participated in and benefitted from actions that have brought the whole life earth system close to destruction.
She wasn’t looking for pat solutions, like ‘Become a vegetarian!’. She was home on acreage when she took the call. When the conversation was punctuated by a the distraction of a kookaburra eating a worm, that seemed to add meaning.