GreenBiz: Reimagining Rare Earth Elements in a Sacrifice Zone-Free Future

Institute fellow Roger Turner talks about the effort to find sustainable rare earth mineral extraction.

One of the urgent challenges of transitioning to a climate-neutral energy economy will be achieving a sustainable supply of the rare earth elements. These 17 elements are used in relatively small quantities in consumer electronics and defense applications. But they will be needed in much larger amounts for wind turbines and electric vehicles.

The “rare earth” label is a peculiar artifact of 18th-century geology, when mineral forms of these elements were first discovered. Today we know accessible deposits of these elements can be found in many places around the world. Yet the mistaken idea of rarity often justifies destructive practices in obtaining these metals. 

Current production is concentrated in just a few places in the world, mostly in China. A combination of market pressures and government priorities have produced serious environmental damage and inflicted a terrible cost on the health of people who live nearby. This gives the Chinese government leverage in international affairs, while also harming vulnerable people.

We need to imagine a more just form of production. What would it look like to increase rare earth element production without sacrificing places and people?

Excerpted from an article in the February 6, 2019, issue of GreenBiz.

Photo: Shutterstock.