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The Scramble for Rare Earths

28 February 2023

Aerial photograph of the Mountain Pass Rare Earth Mine & Processing Facility in San Bernardino County, California. Tmy350, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Scramble for Rare Earths takes listeners from the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbour to the present day. Along the way, the deep connections between geology, energy, climate, politics, and conflict are highlighted. The podcast is hosted by the journalist Misha Glenny, with geology consultant Dr Julie Klinger, University of Delaware, USA, and other guests contributing to the story. On the face of it, The Scramble for Rare Earths is about Rare Earth Elements (REEs), a group of elements that have unique electrical, optical, and magnetic properties that are critical for advances in technology, communications, medicine, and many other key sectors. REEs are of particular interest to geoscientists, economists, and politicians because they are vital in creating the technology needed for the green transition, the shift from non-renewable to renewable energy. A classic example is lithium, a key component of the rechargeable batteries found in electric cars, the low-emission alternative to traditional cars. Other examples include dysprosium, which is needed to produce control rods in reactors that generate nuclear energy. 

Delving deeper, the podcast introduces a paradox: although REEs may enable the green transition, their extraction has detrimental effects on the environment, such as habitat degradation and destruction, and issues with waste management and the vast amounts of water needed to refine these metals. Additionally, profits made from mining REEs are not always distributed equally between local miners and mining companies, meaning that the much-needed green transition also becomes an ethical issue, as it fuels growing inequality. Glenny explores this issue in 15-minute chunks with ample references to real-life examples, both from the past and the present day. 

As a listener, you are left with the unsettling feeling that this is a perpetual situation: humans have fought over critical raw materials throughout our history and REEs are, or soon will be, the next resource that causes political tension. In 2022, China produced 70% of the global supply of REEs (Statista, 2023), eerily mirroring Europe’s unsustainable reliance on Russia and the Middle East for oil for the past few decades. Looking to the future, Glenny and guests foresee major conflict between China, the EU, US, and key players in Africa, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where most of the world’s cobalt is mined. 

The Scramble for Rare Earths offers limited suggestions for how the mining, refining, and distribution of REEs can be managed sustainably. Paul Atherley, chair of the UK-based exploration company, Pensana, briefly talks about their strategies to shift global reliance on China’s REE supply. Klinger also calls for subsidies for more sustainable mining practices and a global strategy for the controlled and equitable distribution of REEs. Although, as geoscientists, it is fascinating to hear about the real-life significance of our science, those who feel uneasy about the scale of the environmental challenges we currently face may find the enormity of the issue overwhelming. Undoubtedly, the podcast effectively highlights the importance of considering the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals across the global mining industry (Mudd, 2020), and conveys this in a way that is fascinating and pertinent. 

Reviewed by Marissa Lo 



The Scramble for Rare Earths (Podcast) 

Hosted by: Misha Glenny 

All 5 episodes are available for over a year here: www.bbc.co.uk (BBC subscription/TV licence required) 


Further reading: 

Mudd, G.M. (2020). Sustainable/responsible mining and ethical issues related to the Sustainable Development Goals. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 508, 187-199; doi: 10.1144/SP508-2020-113

Statista (2023) China’s share of rare earths production worldwide from 2016 to 2022 https://www.statista.com/statistics/1294393/share-of-global-rare-earths-production-in-china/