Renewable energies require a large number of metals and rare earth materials whose extraction produces, in the places where they are obtained, contamination of the soil far superior to that of fossil fuels.
The extraction of minerals, which has propelled China’s economic miracle caused air quality to plummet.
Although this so-called black gold continues to contribute more than half of the country’s energy needs, which will be the main emitter of polluting gases to the atmosphere for a long time, the second world power has initiated an ambitious industrial transformation in which they acquire special relevance of renewable energy and clean mobility.
China has a great advantage when carrying out its transition to this nascent world: it is the largest producer of metals and rare earth materials on the planet, half a hundred elements that are vital for the achievement of the green and digital revolution.
However, green is not the color that predominates much in the Asian giant. Its skyscrapers can be dazzling for that visitor who had never heard of them and who is in front of a vibrant Chinese metropolis.
However, the reality is very different. The mines from which the new precious metals are extracted – rhodium is already quoted at five times the price of gold – have become an increasingly serious source of pollution: gigantic holes, rotten lakes and cancer villages are the consequences rarely mentioned of an industry that destroys raw materials faster than traditional fossil fuels.
The roads are taken by heavy trucks that come and go loaded with dirt and rocks, and the desert surface is pierced by gigantic craters here and there.
At the mining sites, staff immediately meet journalists to push them away from the surrounding area, with little veiled threats that rise in tone when they see the cameras.
Some of these mines do not have a permit and operate illegally, as is the case in the south, in Jiangxi Province, where the Government estimates that recovering the territory damaged by illegal farms will cost up to 5.5 billion dollars.
The high damage caused by the extraction of these materials is due to the fact that they appear in very small quantities and usually mixed with others. Thus, it is necessary to purify up to 200 tons of ore to obtain a kilo of lutetium, the rarest metal ever found.
French journalist Guillaume Pitron explains in-depth in ‘The War of Rare Metals’ – which reveals the dark side of what it calls ‘green capitalism’-: a model that replaces emissions of gases due to the use of electrical appliances by the generation of renewable energies that contaminate areas rich in these new materials.
That is, for example, solar panels generate energy without emitting CO2 and electric vehicles do not pollute the environment through which they move, but the materials necessary for their production destroy the environment of the places where they are extracted, even more than coal or oil.
In the course of the next thirty years, we will have to extract more metal ores than humanity has extracted in 70,000 years. As it happened with the steam engine first and the thermal engine later, the new green revolution is also based on the exploitation of raw materials that many already call ‘the next oil’.
We could have those mines to extract metals in Europe, but we don’t want them because we reject the pollution they cause. So, what we do is relocate that pollution to the other side of the world, to areas where nobody goes.
We erase the contamination of our eyes, and that prevents a debate about what clean energies hide. The problem is that the term “clean” is understood in very different ways and depends on what the priority is.
Now, it is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and not so much the preservation, for example, of ecosystems. Renewable energies fulfil their function in this reduction of emissions if we compare it with fossil energies.
But indeed, they require a large number of raw materials whose extraction is being carried out with a high environmental cost, and the impact on the environment of the ‘green’ industry will depend on the laws that regulate the extraction of the raw materials it requires.
There is so much obsession with boosting renewable energy that, to meet that demand, we will probably see an expansion of the industry without too much control. Although the minerals are recyclable, at the moment, that laborious process is not economically viable.
Around 50% of materials such as cobalt could be recycled. We have the technology, but it is a price problem.
As with fossil fuels, metals and rare earth materials will create new global power relations. Given that, in many cases, China controls more than 90% of its production.
Beijing is the OPEC of the 21st century and can open or close the tap of these matters in response to political and economic interests. China wants to climb steps on the value scale and it does not want to sell raw minerals, but already processed metals or magnets. That is, the final products.
It is part of the strategy included in the controversial ‘Made in China 2025’ program, designed to turn the Asian giant into a technological power.
The problem, companies and governments point out, is that they try to achieve it at the expense of the rest of the world, asserting hegemony in the control of metals and rare earth materials.
The world does not react because the majority of the population is not aware of this critical juncture. In addition, the solutions may be politically incorrect.
Not surprisingly, among those solutions is the reopening of mines. Countries like Japan or France begin to worry about that dependence on China, and initiatives such as the European Battery Alliance, established in 2017 to produce the lithium we need in countries such as Portugal, which has large reserves.
In the United States, they are more aware because these materials are vital for the defence industry. The Pentagon wants to reopen local mines and refining facilities to be independent of China and preserve national security.
However, there is only one operating rare earth mine in the American superpower, that of San Bernardino County, which declared bankruptcy in 2016 and reopened in 2018. And, as the LA Times explained in a report, it sends China the raw material for processing.
It’s very difficult to change the way people consume because they don’t want to change their way of life. In addition, the system is based on constant growth, because the decrease would have a huge impact on employment and the economy and is not compatible with democracy.
The only realistic solution would be a circular economy so that economic growth is not proportional to the increase in the use of raw materials and energy. That will allow us to continue growing while preserving the planet.