The Case of Rare Earth Elements: Activists

You recognize the important role played by rare earth elements in the global economic infrastructure but are concerned that the costs may outweigh the benefits. In negotiations your concerns are primarily focused on the people most affected by the mining and production of rare earths: communities polluted by rare earths waste disposal and miners employed in unfair working conditions. Solutions that rely on recycling and responsible waste handling are essential to moving forward.

Read the Statement of Guiding Values and your group’s Goals and Recommendations for the final Sustainability Seal, and use them to prepare answers to the following questions, which the Stewards will ask during the Summit:

  • The mining and production of rare earth elements can result in intense and long-lasting water and soil pollution, yet these elements are in high demand for countless modern technologies. Are there truly sustainable methods for mining and using rare earth elements? How can cleaner but more costly forms of production compete with cheaper mining operations and illegal smuggling? Who in the production cycle of rare earths should bear the burden of evaluating and minimizing environmental impact?
  • Great strides have been made in the effort to efficiently recycle rare earth elements, but the science behind these technologies is still being tested and existing methods are not widely implemented. Is it possible to prioritize recycling and reuse in the demand for rare earths? What is the most effective way to create incentives for recycling and reuse to reduce new production?
  • The goal of this Summit is to create a Sustainability Seal for the mining, production, and use of rare earth elements. What are the critical factors that must be addressed when discussing the sustainability of rare earths? What are the biggest obstacles to making rare earth elements a sustainable resource? What new problems might result from the creation of this seal?
  • What historical examples and evidence provide useful lessons about the successes or failures of addressing the impact and implications of our use of rare earth elements?
  • Do the problems caused by our use of rare earth elements outweigh the benefits that they provide?

What Can We Do as Citizens to Make the Rare Earth Economy More Sustainable?

Julie Klinger (Associate Director, Land Use and Livelihoods Initiative, Global Development Policy Center): 
Because rare earth mining is dirty and dangerous, historically we’ve located mines far away from major population centers. Right? You wouldn’t want to open up a rare earth mine in the middle of San Francisco or Shanghai. Certainly not. But just because rare earth mines have historically been located in far-off frontier regions doesn’t mean that these places aren’t important, particularly to the people who live there. Right? So we need to get out of this sort of 20th-century mindset, that the only way that we can get the materials we need is if we dig new holes in the ground, if we force someone to sacrifice, if we force a people to give up a landscape they love. So to put that really briefly, let’s account for the carbon of our global rare earth supply chain when we think about reorganizing it and be intentional about how we change our geographies of production. The second thing is to reduce demand by reducing waste. This is a really easy thing that we can do. And the third thing is to be aware of where the raw materials come from and to make sure that we, either as consumers letting companies know or as citizens working with our lawmakers, make sure that we’re not sourcing rare earth elements or other technology metals in a way that destroys landscapes and lives in other parts of the world. 

So I think if we want to produce a more sustainable rare earth industry, we can have the greatest impact if we act, if we recognize our responsibility as citizens, as citizens of this country or whatever your home country is, and also citizens of the world. And by that I mean we participate in the policymaking process, and we get in touch with our elected representatives, and we tell them what our values are, and we tell them what values we’d like them to represent when they’re discussing policy or making laws. That’s a really important thing that we can do. Because one of the biggest challenges to greening our rare earth supply chain, you know, over the past 10, 15 years has been the fact that we haven’t created a supportive policy environment. Right? So if a company wants to do the right thing, or if a mine wants to invest in mining more sustainably, or if a consumer wants to actually repair something that they own, it’s really difficult for them to do that because we haven’t created a social and economic context in which we can do that. Instead, what we have is—no, instead, what we have is actually a market situation where the cheapest producer wins. And also the incentive is for companies to sell as much as they can, as many products as they can. And here’s the thing, those rules didn’t come from nowhere, right? These are rules that citizens, governments decided to implement and enforce, and we can change them.

Credits: The Rare Earth Elements Project is made possible by a generous grant from Roy Eddleman, founder of Spectrum LifeSciences.
Illustrations and animations: Claud Li
Music: “Pythagorean Theorem” by Podington Bear
(c) 2020 Science History Institute

Activist Roles

Goals and Recommendations

Recommendations for the Ethical Production of Rare Earth Elements

Prepared in Advance of the Summit

Main Concerns of the Activists Group:

  • The mining and production of rare earth elements affect local communities and natural habitats, and negotiations should prioritize protecting people and the environment over increasing production. 
  • Producing rare earths can be a valuable opportunity for economic development, but pollution has seriously harmed the health of people who live near historical sites of rare earth production. Producing rare earth elements in new places must avoid the harm caused by past bad practices.   
  • Local communities, not just mine owners and product manufacturers, must benefit from the production of rare earths. The rare earth industry needs to create safe and well-paid jobs for people who live near sites of production and return profits to local communities. 
  • An adequate supply of rare earths may be necessary for producing lower-carbon energy technologies such as wind turbines. While current rare earth separation processes contribute to climate change and local water pollution, using rare earths can also help provide alternative energy sources to fossil fuels.

Recommendations Based on Activists Group Concerns:

  • Producers should establish systems to monitor the area around their operations for pollution; these systems should be run in cooperation with local communities and should publish complete data from those monitoring systems for the public.
  • Producers should hire health experts to monitor the health of local residents who may be harmed by pollution from rare earth production; they should also give the public access to reports on the health of local populations.
  • Manufacturers should join with producers to create end-to-end transparency, allowing tracking of rare earth metals from the start of their production until their delivery to consumers.
  • Producers wishing to be certified must pay at least a living wage to all employees to ensure that everyone involved in the rare earth economy receives a fair share of the benefits.
  • Producers and manufacturers should take steps to reduce carbon pollution and local air and water pollution in an effort to reduce the planet-wide harms caused by climate change. 


Assigned Readings & Other Sources


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