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Supplies of rare earth materials are still far from secure

Phones these days won’t work without rare earths. aaronisnotcool, CC BY

Materials essential for technology products such as electric vehicles, wind turbines or hard disks, known as rare earth elements, aren’t becoming any less rare, or any less crucial.

In fact, experts at a major rare earths conference in Milan on October 16 – the European Rare Earths Competency Network (ERECON) – agreed supply shortages will continue for the time being. This isn’t just a matter for tech companies: their gloomy outlook should be of crucial importance for the future of international relations.

We need new sources of such materials, and we need our current industries to become more resilient towards supply disruptions. They will happen and we must be prepared. Rare earth elements are like the salt and pepper of numerous everyday products – the world wouldn’t end without them, but it would be an impoverished place.

Some say the worst is over. The supply crunch for rare earth became apparent when prices tripled in 2011, driven by concerns over limited supply and export restrictions imposed by China, the dominant producer at the time. Following this price peak the US, Japan and the EU successfully appealed to the WTO and forced China to open up its export market.

Supplies from outside of China such as the Mountain Pass mine in California have also developed and China’s global market share has accordingly gone from 95% down to around 75%, according to conference participants. And geologists around the world don’t stop reassuring us that the reserves are plentiful.

So, is this much ado about nothing? Actually, the picture looks less bright than those slowly emerging trends of a more independent supply might suggest. Most countries are at least as vulnerable as in 2011.

Why we’re still vulnerable

China is progressively moving “downstream” in the rare earths supply chain. Once, it merely dominated in mining the actual materials, now it wants to create jobs and a high-tech manufacturing industry dependent on these rare earths. It has put measures in place to “encourage” manufacturers to locate their production in China, to “ensure” access to rare earths according to conference participants.

This leaves European producers in a pretty uncomfortable position. They want reliable contracts with downstream industries, which operate closer to the final products. But survival in competitive times is tough, and the firms that actually make cell phones or wind turbines are now locked into investment decisions that will require more rare earth supplies for the foreseeable future.

There is a less-known ethical dimension in it. Some 40% of Chinese rare earth extraction is estimated to take place in illegal mines according to an expert who works with Chinese sources. Consumers should start realising that a significant number of fancy devices and cherished renewable energies are in fact based upon a dirty, bloody and illegal extraction process.

On top of all that, the gunboat diplomacy that created the momentum for the 2011 supply crunch continues. Territorial disputes in the South and East Chinese Seas have left China on bad terms with several neighbouring countries. Given that historians constantly remind us that the Great War emerged out of a similar constellation in Europe in 1914, one should clearly be worried about what potentially could escalate into a serious catastrophe.

What can be done

The US, France, Germany and Japan have all run large-scale projects to test new recycling options that could help reduce dependency on new rare earths. These sorts of initiatives can yield results quickly. For countries who haven’t put such projects in place (including the UK) it’s high time to catch up.

Manufacturers such as Siemens or General Electric who depend on rare earths seem ready and willing to engage. After all it is in their interest to establish supply chains that can withstand a run on these materials. A platform for engagement between government and manufacturers may require policy intervention – some sort of technology strategy board or an international metal recovery covenant.

Though recycling and increased efficiency is important such steps won’t be enough by themselves: new supplies will be needed – and this means mining. Sweden has some of the most promising deposits in Europe, so has Greece, among other regions. Local politicians may struggle to get backing for new mining but the public interest in green technologies that rely on a sustainable supply should help.

Greenland also has rich rare earth deposits – potentially a quarter of the world’s supply. China is already getting its foot in that door, with 1,500 workers already mining there, but the race is not yet over.

The rare earth supply crunch is a short-term urgency with mid-term opportunities. Nobody should blame China for acting in its own interests. Rather, others must collaborate together to reach a solution. Last but not least international efforts to establish due diligence along the value chain should help China to move away from illegal mining and establish a more sustainable and transparent rare earth supply.

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