After six years of investigation, journalist Guillaume Pitron warns us of the environmental and social impacts of rare metals, a vital component of green technology. Is the energy transition really as virtuous as it seems?
According to Guillaume Pitron, in our quest to free ourselves from fossil fuels, we have formed a new addiction: a reliance on the rare metals that are essential to the development of green technology. The journalist and filmmaker specialized in the geopolitics of commodities spent six years investigating rare metals, resources with extraordinary properties that are crucial to the success of the energy and digital transitions. Today he warns us of the environmental and social impacts of this new dependence, which could prove even more devastating than those of the carbon industry.
You are one of the rare journalists to take an interest in the issue of rare metals. What are they?
It’s fairly simple. Rare metals are 1,000 to 4,000 times less abundant than common metals. They are more difficult to extract and refine and require highly advanced industrial facilities. They are naturally mixed with more common metals such as iron, aluminum, zinc and copper in the earth’s crust. The rare metals include gallium, indium and graphite. Within the family of rare metals, there is the category of rare earths, a group of 17 metals with similar properties: scandium, yttrium and the fifteen lanthanides.
Which countries are the largest producers of rare metals?
Despite their name, these rare metals are present all over the world, but only a few countries are specialized in extracting them. This is the case for China, which is responsible for 95% of the world’s production of rare earths and operates tungsten, graphite, gallium, indium and germanium mines. Kazakhstan mines for chrome, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for cobalt, and Brazil for niobium. As for lithium, an abundant metal that is also vital to the energy transition, the main mines are located in Australia, Chile, Bolivia and Argentina.
Why are rare metals vital to the world economy and the energy and digital transitions?
All technological products contain a very small amount of these metals: LEDs, smartphone chips, laptop computer screens, etc. Rare metals are like additives that boost the power of all the objects we use on a daily basis. Without their extraordinary properties, our technology would be less powerful, slower and less malleable. For example, they have enabled the miniaturization of mobile phones. They are also included in the composition of most forms of green technology, which are converging with the digital technologies to form the very basis of the energy transition. In short, without rare metals, there would be no wind farms, no batteries, no electric cars.
What would be the possible consequences of a short or long-term global shortage?
Rare metals are used in key industries and given their strategic nature, demand is set to soar in coming years. This will inevitably lead to tensions between strong demand and relatively low supply.
I believe shortages will be a short-term issue and new deposits will be found. However, this tension raises questions about the economic, social and ecological price we are willing to pay to access a resource that will continually require us to go further and deeper in its pursuit.
What are the ecological and social consequences of this race for rare metals?
Mining for rare metals is extremely complicated industrially. The ore must be extracted from dozens of kilos of rock, purified and processed with chemical products, which are often released into the environment. In China, for example, the extraction of rare metals has resulted in tremendous damage to health. The wastewater, sometimes containing radioactive waste, flows into the environment, polluting surface water and groundwater. The cobalt mining conditions in DRC are equally deplorable from an environmental and social perspective.
We know that the energy transition is vitally important. Could it be achieved without these rare metals? Or could we reduce the adverse consequences of the mining process?
To limit the impact of climate change, we have no other choice: we must free ourselves from fossil fuel-based models with greenhouse gas emissions and turn instead to renewable energy. Yet renewable energy requires the use of resources that must be extracted and, in the process, generate other forms of pollution and environmental waste. At the very least, they result in damage to soil and water. We must understand that technology will not solve the ecological issue, and, in fact, the energy transition causes us to move from one form of dependence to another. However, technological progress allows us to do more with less. The energy transition must therefore go hand-in-hand with profound reflection on moderating our consumption patterns. One major challenge is to extend the lifetime of the material.
Is the sustainable mining of rare metals possible? Or, rather, can they truly create an economic opportunity without causing an ecological disaster?
Sustainable agriculture without pesticides is possible. What can be done in agriculture can be done in the mining sector. This involves developing responsible processes. We will need to invest in repairing the damage caused to the environment and health by the industry and ultimately ensure that it becomes less harmful for the environment.
The problem is that with rare metals, the rich countries have outsourced pollution and are refusing to face the catastrophic environmental consequences of this decision. In order to control extraction processes, we must bring this activity back to our so-called developed countries. In so doing we would reduce our economic dependency and put an end to a certain form of hypocrisy that consists in consuming goods in our country that are produced using methods that cause significant environmental damage on the other side of the world. But let’s face it: mining will never be a clean activity. But by increasing the regulations that govern it, we can make it less dirty and more in line with our environmental ambitions. Having mines on our soil would also help raise awareness of the fact that our consumption patterns have a direct impact on the environment.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.