The race for rare earth

Does everybody win from going green? In the long-run, given the rather unpredictable scenarios of catastrophic climate change into the 4/5/6C warming mark, it would seem that avoiding this prospect seems unambiguously like a good thing.

But while the urgent task of decarbonising economies, slashing the carbon-intensity of each unit of GDP, faces its own challenges, not least in the technological hurdles and political and economic stakes from voting publics, there’s every chance of opening up new forms of tension and competition in global politics. Sharing ‘one earth’ and a ‘common future’ rings true, but only up to a point.

Because in the drive to roll-out electric cars and erect solar arrays en masse, pressures emerge on commodities and resources previously outside the limelight – especially rare earth minerals. As a BBC report highlights, when 90% of current mining capacity of such materials takes place in China and when it now wants to spread that production less globally, that doesn’t leave very much for the rest of the world. Its own rare earth police of sorts is indicative of recognizing the increasing value of this commodity.

Resources such as lithium, concentrated in Chile, China and Bolivia, are key components of the technologies needed for a low-carbon future, such as electric car batteries. Lots of other -iums, such as neodyium (to pick one of the more pronounceable ones), perform similar functions in low-carbon technologies – as the BBC story illustrates, it is used as a magnet in electric vehicle motors.

Right now, access might be straightforward, but if some of these things are really going to scale up to the level of entire economies, that might be the case less and less.  This is an increasingly recognized prospect in security terms, as a draft US Congressional act setting out security challenges for the US Department of Defence to assess makes clear. An older news story from Japan also highlights how the rare earth challenge is edging onto center stage of governments’ agendas to build stockpiles and ensure security of supply.

The blessings and curses of geography have left much of the world’s supply of these materials in countries other than industrialised democracies. So it may also be unsurprising that some of these countries that now find themselves sitting on top of accessible rare earth deposits also come to find themselves facing the same paradox of resource wealth that oil-rich poor countries have encountered in the past half-century. The phenomenon of dependence on resource exports distorting economic performance and the stability of governance, may simply replace today’s oil-rich kleptocracies with tomorrow’s rare-earth-rich ones. A rare-earth habit to replace a fossil-fuel one? Cue the same distortions, in turn, on the conduct of foreign policy by the rest of the world.

None of these obstacles are probably insurmountable, with generation after generation of new technological development rendering old demands obsolete, and increased use catalyzing increased efficiency and recycling.

But like most things, there are side-effects to benefits, even to achieving what might be in our everyday lives a greener and more sustainable future. A recent Foreign Policy magazine article warned of the prospect of peak phosphorus, what the authors bill as “the gravest natural resource shortage you’ve never heard of”. The production of phosphorus, a key fertilizer input to support industrial agriculture, is struggling to meet demand, with worrying consequences for agricultural production and food security.

Phosphorus isn’t a rare earth material, but it is an illustration of how demand for a commodity generates political and security concerns. Going green will have its fair share of those.

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One thought on “The race for rare earth

  1. […] around the world (and to Africa in particular) in search of resources to fuel their economies (see previous thoughts on rare earth materials) and feed their populations; this is one of the standard subplots in the popular narrative about […]

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