From the author of ‘Towards Better Health’ http://mieuxprevenir.blogspot.co.za/2018/02/rare-metals-electric-vehicle-generates.html
Interview with Guillaume Pitron
In his latest work, « La Guerre des métaux rares » (The War of Rare Metals), Guillaume Pitron denounces the « hidden face of the energy and digital transition ». For the journalist, wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles are shifting pollution to the other side of the world.
What are rare metals?
The European Union provides a list of 27 rare raw materials (phosphorus, cobalt, helium, etc.), including many metals. These are ores present in minute quantities in the earth’s crust. They are naturally mixed with other more abundant metals (iron, aluminum, etc.). In order to obtain a few pounds, one has to extract tons of earth. Scientists speak of geological and also industrial rarity. Some abundant metals may become rare if demand explodes.
What are they used for ?
Thanks to their unique chemical properties, they are the vitamins of the energy and digital transition, the oil of the 21st century. Without rare metals, our mobile phones would be the size of a brick and would have no touch screen or vibrator. Without them, it is impossible to propel a TGV [high-speed train] at 500 km/h. It is amazing that they have invaded us. Our high-tech future will always be more dependent on these minerals whose production continues to grow.
What is the principal country producing rare metals?
China leads the production of many of them. It controls 95% of the world’s rare earth production. In 1992, Deng Xiaoping (China’s leader from 1978 to 1992) prophetically said, “The Middle East has oil, China has rare earths”. Historically, the United States was market leader, but with the environmental awareness of the 80s, Westerners no longer wanted mines in their own country. Extracting rare metals was too dirty and expensive in terms of energy.
The Chinese, in a quest for unbridled growth, took up production. For decades, at the cost of unprecedented social and environmental abandon, China is flooding the West with cheap rare metals. This situation suits everyone, on the one hand, Western countries developing their new technologies at low cost, on the other, the Chinese who are getting richer.
All is well in the best of all worlds, until China became aware of the economic and geopolitical leverage it could activate with these resources. By the beginning of the 21st century, its growth and need for rare metals exploded. In order to meet domestic demand and develop its own technologies, Beijing decided to turn off the tap. After loading up the West with rare metals, the country restricted its exports. This is the famous quota policy that angered the World Trade Organization.
China profited from this in order to develop its own energy transition.
Exactly, to the detriment of ours [France]. The word “innovation” has become a mantra in China. Green and digital technologies are the new engines of Chinese growth, essential to the survival of the Communist Party. To ensure its industrial progress, Beijing has not hesitated to appropriate western technologies. In exchange for direct and unlimited access to rare metals, many manufacturers migrated to China. The Chinese have accessed their research laboratories. Under the cover of co-innovation, they have “sinicized” European and American patents. Thanks to this blackmail with metals, China has become the world leader in energy transition. The country emerged from the Stone Age which the West wanted to confine it to.
Does one find rare metals in other countries ?
They are everywhere, lithium in Bolivia and Argentina, copper in Chile, cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Indonesia is also a big mining power that is bursting with tin. All these countries want to draw inspiration from the Chinese example and capture the added value of rare metals. No longer does any State want to reproduce the neocolonialist scheme according to which the developing countries produce the raw materials, sell them for a handful of dollars to the Westerners, who will file patents to sell them back at a value ten times more expensive.
Apart from ambitions, it is very difficult to put in place because it means opening roads, installing power lines, bringing in expertise. In 2015, Indonesia attempted to place an embargo on the export of raw minerals. Behind this, it did not have a sufficiently developed industrial fabric to transform the resource. It had to pull back two years later. The only certainty is that Westerners must agree to share the technological “cake” to which all nations aspire.
What are the ecological consequences of the race for rare metals?
Whoever says “mine”, says environmental damage. This is a sweeping reversal of green growth. In Inner Mongolia, the main mining region of China, it is a Dante’s hell. No regulation is applied. The plants discharge their toxic effluents directly into the ground. The population pays a heavy price with a very high cancer rate. The problem is that recycling costs more than extraction. Trapped by a logic of least cost, the manufacturers prefer to send their waste back to China and directly buy new minerals.
Thus, the energy transition has only shifted the pollution?
This transition is a lure. Intense marketing fuels the illusion that renewable energies are green. We purposefully forget that they are dependent on extraction of dirty metals. We have just relocated pollution and pretend to be “doing clean”. Take the example of electric cars. The term “zero emission” is delusional. Throughout its life cycle, an electric vehicle generates almost as much carbon as a diesel vehicle. How can we call this technology sustainable?
The digital revolution, essential to the development of new sources of energy, also supports the mirage of a less physical world. In fact, hiding behind an email are thousands of kilometers of copper cables. We forget that the quantity of matter is finite. The experts already know the exact day when the last profitable ore will be extracted. Technologies can always evolve and push back the final date, but at what price? It is a sprint that is depleting the earth.
In the name of sobriety, of the least impact of man on the environment, we are digging even more. We live in full paradox. The most productive-oriented are already thinking of the oceans and asteroids where the mining potential is huge. The big powers are appropriating places that the international community has sworn to protect from industrial appetites. In 2015, Barack Obama opened the dance. It has allowed U.S. citizens to own asteroids to exploit rare metal deposits. It is a total severance from the idea that space is a common property of humanity.
To raise awareness, you are pleading for the reopening of French mines…
October 2010. Photo stringer. Reuters.