New study underscores the need to make rare earth metal use more sustainable

Chinese laborers work at a rare earth mine. Photo: Reuters

The supply of rare earth metals necessary for building solar panels and wind turbines might not be able to keep pace with growing global demand spurred by the growth in renewable energy technology. We don’t recycle these metals and their extraction is rife with human rights abuses. As Phys reported, a new study, commissioned and funded by the non-profit EarthWorks, “shows that as demand for minerals such as lithium and rare earths skyrockets, the already significant environmental and human impacts of hardrock mining are likely to rise steeply as well. In a companion white paper, Earthworks makes the case for a broad shift in the sector towards more responsible minerals sourcing.”

The study’s lead author, Elsa Dominish, Senior Research Consultant at the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures explained that “We must dramatically scale up the use of recycled minerals, use materials far more efficiently, require mining operations to adhere to stringent, independent environmental and human rights standards, and prioritize investments in electric-powered public transit….If manufacturers commit to responsible sourcing this will encourage more mines to engage in responsible practices and certification.”

If we continue on a business as usual trajectory, the discrepancy between supply and demand of rare earths will skyrocket in the coming decades. Motherboard helped put this into perspective:

Graph depicting global critical metal demand for wind and solar panels, between 2020 and 2050, compared with the 2017 level of annual metal production (2017 = 1).

 

Why This Matters: There’s a deep sense of urgency to transition our economy to emissions-free renewable energy if we’re to have a shot at averting the worst repercussions of climate change. However, as we work toward a more sustainable future, we can’t build it on the backs of abused workers and environmental destruction in foreign countries. Companies have an opportunity right now to set a precedent for sustainable use of rare earth minerals and they should show leadership and help create solutions.

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