(Not so) Rare Earth Metals & Your Role in Sustainable Development

Despite their name, rare earth metals are are abundant in nature but are hazardous and costly to extract. Rare earth metals are a group of 17 metals that have moved from being a by- product of mining operations to an important component of many or most of the hi-tech products that are becoming/ have already become a key component of everyday life for most of us. As a society nearly all the technology that we use includes rare earth metals, including many of the green technologies (tablets, cell phones, solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars) that we hope will help us transition to a more sustainable society. This makes rare earth metals both a valuable input into, and a strategic for, sustainable economic development. This is especially true within the context of climate change, environmental degradation and an ever increasing need for more efficient resource use. It is therefore essential that these metals are used and extracted in the most sustainable way possible.

It is particularly important to consider rare earth metals within the renewable energy and green technology context. It is also essential to weigh up the pros and cons of transitioning to new technologies before simply adopting them. It is just as important for your ecocide that you know what the real impact of your renewable energy, paperless office, electric car etc really is as you do not want to be lulled in to a false sense of green-ness. For example:

  • Electric cars seen as a way to reduce carbon footprints and GHG emissions so necessary for climate change mitigation. However, an electric car might use nearly 10 times the amount of rare earth metals as opposed to a conventional car which uses a little more than one pound of rare earth materials.
  • A single large wind turbine (rated at about 3.5 megawatts) typically contains 600 kilograms, or about 1,300 pounds, of rare earth metals. (http://dgrnewsservice.org/2012/04/09/bright-green-technologies-dependent-on-rare-earth-metals-that-may-soon-be-economically-unviable/)
  • Moving towards a paperless office may save trees and water but the technology needed to do so will require rare earth metals that will necessarily involve mining, pollution and environmental degradation.

I am not saying new hi-tech solutions are unsustainable, what we need are solutions that have the least impact. It is therefore essential that we weigh up the costs and benefits of any new, greener technologies that we adopt as we make our way towards sustainability.

Rare Earth Element  Used in    
 Scandium  metal alloys for the aerospace industry
 Yttrium  phosphors, ceramics, metal alloys
 Lanthanum  batteries, catalysts for petroleum refining
 Cerium  catalysts, polishing, metal alloys
 Praseodymium  improved magnet corrosion resistance,   pigment
 Neodymium  high power magnets for laptops, lasers
 Promethium  beta radiation source
 Samarium  high temperature magnets, reactor control rods
 Europium  liquid crystal displays, fluorescent   lighting
 Gadolinium  magnetic resonance imaging contrast agent
 Terbium  phosphors for lighting and display
 Dysprosium  high power magnets, lasers
 Holmium  the highest power magnets known
 Erbium  lasers, glass colorant
 Thulium  ceramic magnetic materials under development
 Ytterbium  fibre optic technology, solar panels
 Lutetium  X-ray phosphors
Sources: (Nath, 2011)   (British Geological Survey, Royal Society of Chemistry, 2010)

At present the majority of the rare earth metals are mined and processed in China. China produces an estimated 97% of the rare earth metals that are used around the world (Nath, 2011). China is also associated with unsustainable mining and production practices making society’s reliance on unsustainably sourced Chinese rare earth metals somewhat “unsustainable”.

An example is;The town of Baotou, in Inner Mongolia, where two-thirds of Chinas rare earths are mined and processed. Baotou is the largest Chinese source of rare earth minerals, the minerals are mined at Bayan Obo, north of Baotou then brought to Baotou for processing. The mining and processing operations in Baotu has resulted in soil, air and groundwater pollution which has in turn negatively impacted on the health and well-being of people living in the area.

“According to an article published by the Chinese Society of Rare Earths, “Every ton of rare earth produced generates approximately 8.5 kilograms (18.7 lbs) of fluorine and 13 kilograms (28.7 lbs) of dust; and using concentrated sulfuric acid high temperature calcination techniques to produce approximately one ton of calcined rare earth ore generates 9,600 to 12,000 cubic meters (339,021 to 423,776 cubic feet) of waste gas containing dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid, approximately 75 cubic meters (2,649 cubic feet) of acidic wastewater plus about one ton of radioactive waste residue (containing water).” Furthermore, according to statistics conducted within Baotou, “all the rare earth enterprises in the Baotou region produce approximately ten million tons of all varieties of wastewater every year” and most of that waste water is “discharged without being effectively treated, which not only contaminates potable water for daily living, but also contaminates the surrounding water environment and irrigated farmlands.” (www.thecuttingedgenews.com, 2012 )

While rare earth minerals may be able to help us transition to a more sustainable society they are not the silver bullet to enabling the transition towards a low carbon, greener economy. It is therefore essential that mining and processing of the rare earths occurs in a sustainable manner as does the use of technologies containing rare earths. As a society we need to be more mindfull of how we use our technology and not blindly assume that we are doing the environment a favour by changing to a so called “greener technology”.

So the next time a new tablet, ipod, cellphone or whatever is released don’t just buy the new one for the sake of having the latest model, “Wasting rare earth minerals on gadgets is not going to get us any closer to being sustainable”, (says the blogger typing away on her latest hi-tech tablet/ gadget!)


Baotou article

The cutting edge.

Dr Chandrika Nath 2011, Rare Earth Posst Note UK Parliament. 

Rare Earth Elements, June 2010, British Geological Survey




Despite all being emerging economies Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and often being referred to in the same discussion, are all approaching the summit with different goals. This highlights the fact that the countries should not all be viewed through the same climate change lens and that each country has its own development context, agenda and goals that must be considered. For example:

The Indian GDP per capita is almost identical to that of Africa’s. No one is expecting all of Africa to match China’s commitments. Perhaps if India negotiated in 30 discrete blocks things would be different.

“You can’t compare China and India,” says Kartikeya Singh, CIERP Junior Associate at the Fletcher School who is also serving as an advisor to government delegations in Durban. “It’s convenient to compare them side-by-side because of their mammoth populations but the reality from an energy and emissions perspective, is quite different. They have fast growing economies too and all of these indicators make people want to put them together in a club.”


The BRICS countries each have their own agendas and the following has emerged from the negotiations to date:

Brazil has stated that it is not placing any conditions on committing itself to an internationally legally binding instrument to reduce carbon emissions as long as such a treaty helped the fight against climate change based on scientific studies. Brazil is hoping for the following:

  1. The adoption of a second commitment period of Kyoto Protocol before the end of COP17 summit.
  2. A fully functional Green Climate Fund, which includes short-term and long-term financing mechanisms to assist developing nations to adapt to climate change.

Russia, a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, has blankly refused to consider a second commitment period.

India has emerged as the leading opponent to a binding treaty at COP 17. India is the world’s third largest carbon emitter, yet has one of the smallest one of the smallest per-capita-carbon footprints in the world, and  has made it clear that it is choosing economic growth over efforts to reduce emissions. In addition India has joined with other emerging economies in advocating a renewal of the Kyoto Protocol. Under this treaty, developing nations like India and China have no obligations to make cuts to emissions and all the onus is put on Western industrialized countries.

China, the worlds biggest greenhouse gas emitter has stated that it is open to signing a formal treaty restricting emissions after 2020. Chinas conditions arise from China’s need for rapid economic growth to counter the persistent poverty of millions of its citizens. This need for rapid economic growth is the underlying reason for China’s view that it cannot be bound by the same emissions standards as advanced industrialized nations. Chinas agreement to the signing of a treaty is subject to the following conditions;

  1. New carbon-cutting pledges by rich nations in the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol;
  2. The fast launch of the Green Climate Fund agreed on in Cancun under a supervisory regime;
  3. Implementing the consensus of adaptation;
  4. Technology transfer, transparency, capability building
  5. Other points agreed upon in the former conferences as well as appraising developed countries’ commitment during the first period of the Kyoto Protocol.

South Africa, like China, has shown interest in the EU Roadmap and has agreed to binding agreements with conditionality’s that are informed by the need for climate change adaptation financing, technology transfer and capacity building.


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