Green New Deal York Collab – Rare Earth Elements: China’s Monopoly, International Relations and the Environment

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By Gracie Daw and Caitlin Baptista – Contributors and Members of Green New Deal York

What are rare earths?

Rare earths are seventeen elements that sit at the bottom of the periodic table, which are used in a range of modern technologies. They are almost certainly present in everyone’s daily life in some form, as they are used in: mobile phones, Green energy production,  electric cars and medical scanners. Rare earths, despite the name, are found in abundance within the earth’s crust. The difficulty in obtaining them, however, comes in the extraction process. The elements are found together, but most applications require a high level of purity. Therefore it takes large amounts of energy and skilled processes to extract them for use. 

Rare earth deposits are found across the world, in places such as the USA, Brazil, China, Australia, Russia and India. It is China, though, who are building a monopoly over the resource, as they produce about 84 percent of rare earths. They have done this through the curation of an efficient extraction process, and by building factories close to the mines which allows for production to be carried out quickly and effectively. This has meant that rare earths have become a critical bargaining chip in International Relations. 

The environmental impact

Because of the complex extraction and separation processes of rare earths, they have a significant environmental impact. Resource use is growing exponentially, which raises concerns about availability. This is largely because of an increase in population across the world, and an increase in social mobility, which means that more individuals are able to purchase products containing rare earths, and that the life span of a product containing rare earths is decreasing. This highlights the need to dispose of rare earth materials in an environmentally friendly manner to allow for re-use. Despite this, in 2011 approximately only 1 percent of rare earth materials were recycled. 

Moreover, the extraction process causes the pollution of water and air which can affect the local area. It has also meant that the soil nearby mines are incapable of being used for crops. Whilst it is possible to clean-up the pollutants, it is expected to take 50 to 100 years before the environment is restored and the process is hugely expensive. New methods for extracting the rare earths are currently being researched; as China is the main country which mines the materials, they are at the forefront of this process. 

The role of rare earths on International Relations

Rare earths have been a feature of trade wars since China created their monopoly over the market. In 2009/2010, China ‘unofficially’ halted the export of rare earths to Japan to gain power in the market. It meant that companies either moved their factories to China or attempted to limit their reliance on rare earths. Some countries, such as the US, have established a small stockpile of rare earths in case the import from China stops, before they can develop a process to mine them in their own countries.

It is notable that the Trump administration did not impose tariffs on the import of rare earths in their trade war against China. It would be domestically advantageous for the US to keep rare earth mining in China, especially for the recent Biden administration which has a keen focus on the environment, and climate in particular. Pre-existing environmental standards in the US would make it harder to efficiently mine the elements and there would be considerable backlash from voters. Additionally, It would play into a pre-existing debate over fracking in the country and would remind voters of the crisis in Flint Michigan where 100,000 people were exposed to high levels of lead in the water supply. Therefore, when looking at only domestic policy, it would not be appropriate for the US to ramp-up the mining of rare earths on their own soil. 

The Biden administration has recently introduced the ‘Supply Chain Strike Force’ which is an effort to remove the United States’ supply chain weaknesses. In relation to rare earths, it suggests that the materials can be obtained from Russia, given that a large supply has been identified in Siberia. This will start to break-down China’s monopoly over the materials given that the USA is such a large consumer of rare earth materials. 

The fact that many rare earth deposits exist in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) is important. As the materials are currently vital in the manufacture of many technological items and BRICS countries are where production is growing, the thesis that BRICS countries are the rising states and will control the production processes by 2050 is supported. It is possible that BRICS countries will develop mining processes to support the pre-existing and growing production industries in their countries. 

China uses rare earths as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to expand across the world. They approach countries which have large rare earth deposits and trade mining rights for infrastructure projects. This allows China to expand their mining operation outside their own borders, which ultimately protects their own citizens and environment. BRI has already been hugely successful for China, given that 71 countries have participated which covers approximately half the world’s population, and a quarter of global GDP. 

Summery

Rare earths are hugely important materials that we use in our everyday lives. Currently their mining and production almost entirely occurs in China which creates a monopoly in the process. Because of China’s hold over rare earths, and the world’s reliance on them, they have become a part of international relations. The USA has been careful to avoid giving China a monopoly over any material as to maintain their hegemonic status. Whilst they have not been successful so far, the Biden administration appears to be willing to change this. 

International Relations involving rare earths is complicated by the environmental impact which extracting the materials has, meaning that countries are wary of mining them in their own territories. China will likely continue to encourage the world to use rare earths and will expand their access to mines through the Belt and Road Initiative to do so. The rest of the world will, in the short term, likely try to find other suppliers, and in the long term, attempt to wean themselves off these materials which they have grown increasingly reliant on. 

References

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/dont-panic-about-rare-earth-elements/

https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137364241_5

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/276042623_Social_and_Environmental_Impact_of_the_Rare_Earth_Industries

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-36206897

https://www.silkroadbriefing.com/news/2021/06/10/the-united-states-new-supply-chain-strike-force-a-metaphor-for-sanctioning-china/

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/ng-interactive/2018/jul/30/what-china-belt-road-initiative-silk-road-explainer

https://www.chemistryworld.com/opinion/rare-earth-magnates/9473.article

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