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Rare earths: The find in Sweden does not save us

By Michael Reckordt
Michael Reckordt, raw materials expert at the NGO PowerShift e.V.

It was one of the biggest news stories on Jan. 12: The Swedish state-owned company LKAB stumbled upon more than one million tons of rare earths while searching for iron ore, more than four times the current annual global production.

Rare earths, these are 17 elements that are used in the production of permanent magnets for wind turbines, electric motors, fuel cells or light sources – in other words, for technologies that are indispensable in the climate transition. The elements are called neodymium, praseodymium, lanthanum or yttrium. Never before have they been found in such large quantities in Europe. The media attention was correspondingly great.

Up to now, Europe has obtained rare earths, which it urgently needs for a climate-friendly transformation, primarily from China. The dependence on the Asian country is great, although the rare earths – contrary to their name – are not so rare. For example, they are also found in Storkwitz in Saxony. But they are not extracted there because that would not be economically viable.

But unfortunately, the Swedish discovery is not a game changer that could help Europe reduce its dependence on China in this area, which is so vital for a more climate-friendly economy.

High effort for extraction

In the 2010s, 95 percent of the global production of rare earths was already mined in China. Their high technological value made them a potential bargaining chip even at that time. To this day, our supply of rare earths is dependent on China: Of the 280,000 metric tons of rare earths mined worldwide in 2021, 70 percent entered the market via China – either because they were mined in the country itself, or because China bought them before they were further used domestically or re-exported.

We need new procurement sources. But the Swedish discovery will only help us to a limited extent: The concentration of rare earths in the ore-bearing rock at the site is only 0.2 percent, as Jens Gutzmer says, head of the Helmholtz Institute for Resource Technology in Freiberg and one of the leading scientists in the field: Much lower than, for example, in the Mountain Pass mines (USA) with 3.8 percent or Bayan Obo (China), with three to five percent ore concentration. This means that a lot of rock has to be moved in the new deposits in order to extract relatively little rare earth. It makes mining expensive and the ecological damage high.

Even if the extraction of rare earths in Sweden were to reach a certain share of global production in the next 10 to 20 years, the question of their processing remains unresolved. Here, too, China currently holds a market share of 85 percent, according to the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources. And Chinese reserves of rare earths are estimated at up to 44 million tons.

Making better use of valuable raw materials through recycling

So our dependence on China will remain – unless we learn to better utilize valuable raw materials such as rare earths. We would have the means to do so. Rare earths can be recycled, but although they are so important for future technologies, the circular economy for rare earths has so far only been poorly established in Europe. Time and again, the importance of rare earths for wind turbines or electric motors was pointed out, and thus for a successful energy transition.

And yet they are being wasted. This is very harmful to the climate, because mining and further processing of metals contribute between 10 and 15 percent to global carbon emissions.

Currently, the share of recycled material in the total use of rare earths in Germany is well below 10 percent. This means that more than 90 percent have to be obtained through mining. There are approaches such as substitution – there are actually wind turbines without rare earths – or expanding recycling, which receives too little attention.

EU Critical Raw Materials Law must set framework

The Critical Raw Materials Act announced by the EU Commission for March will have to set the right framework conditions here:

  • The further processing of rare earths at the EU level must be expanded,
  • and their circular economy use.
  • In addition, substitution must be examined in products where it makes sense.

Fundamentally, the share of mining in metal use must be reduced – and with it the environmental destruction and human rights violations that so often accompany mining. Germany and Europe need a genuine raw materials transition that places the protection of people and the environment at the center of policy.

Under the current circumstances, the newly discovered Swedish deposits will be quickly used up – if they can be mined at all. Because one thing was completely lost in the media euphoria: The Sami, on whose land the rare earths were found, have not yet approved the extraction.

Michael Reckordt is Program Manager Raw Materials and Resource Justice at PowerShift – Verein für eine ökologisch-solidarische Energie-& Weltwirtschaft e.V. in Berlin.


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