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Map highlights environmental and social costs of rare earths extraction
The Rare-Earth Elements Impacts and Conflicts Map documents contentious processes taking place across REE supply chains (extraction, processing and recycling sites). It documents more than 25 cases of socio-environmental contention in China, Chile, Brazil, Finland, Greenland, India, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Malawi, Myanmar, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, and Sweden, among other countries.
Map highlights environmental and social costs of rare earths extraction
by Hugo Ritmico
Barcelona, Spain (SPX) Nov 28, 2023

A recently released map by the Debt Observatory in Globalization, in collaboration with the EJAtlas of Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB), the Institute for Policy Studies, and CRAAD-OI Madagascar, has shed light on a less-discussed aspect of the global supply chains for rare earth elements (REEs). The "Rare Earths Impacts and Conflicts Map" documents 28 social and environmental conflicts arising from the extraction, processing, and recycling of these essential minerals.

Rare earth elements, a group of 17 chemical elements, are indispensable for modern technology. Their unique magnetic, optical, and electronic properties make them critical components in a wide range of applications, from wind turbines and solar panels to electric vehicles, and from LED screens to advanced defense and aerospace systems. The importance of REEs is underscored by the European Union's Critical Raw Materials Act, which highlights their strategic significance in the green and digital transition, as well as in defense and aerospace industries.

However, the map reveals a troubling side to the extraction and use of REEs. It highlights how these processes are intertwined with significant impacts on water, soil, air quality, and human health. Issues such as lack of transparency in decision-making processes, human rights violations, criminalization, and violence against communities are prevalent in the countries identified as hotspots for REE-related conflicts. These include China, Chile, Brazil, Finland, Greenland, India, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Malawi, Myanmar, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, and Sweden.

The demand for rare earth elements is projected to surge, driven by the global push for green energy and digitalization. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that meeting the Net Zero Emissions goals would require a tenfold increase in REE extraction by 2030. This increase in demand, and consequently in production, which has already seen an 85% rise between 2017 and 2020, mainly due to the need for permanent magnets in electric vehicles and wind power technology, raises serious concerns about the sustainability and fairness of the REE supply chain.

The REE Impacts and Conflicts Map points to an urgent need for addressing the increasingly unsustainable and unjust distribution of environmental, social, and health burdens across the global supply chains of REEs. The map raises several critical questions: How can the energy transition and digitalization processes be made environmentally just and sustainable without exacerbating current unsustainable practices or violating human rights? Can industrial design be rethought to prolong product lifespan, increase recycling, and decrease e-waste, waste generation, and energy use? Are there ways to develop energy transition policies that do not compromise environmental, social, or participation rights in the pursuit of climate urgency? And importantly, how can this transition account for biophysical limits?

These questions are crucial as the world grapples with the dual challenge of advancing technological progress while ensuring that this progress does not come at an unacceptable cost to the environment and communities. The map not only highlights the geographical spread of these conflicts but also serves as a call to action for policymakers, industries, and societies to rethink the current trajectory of REE extraction and usage.

Research Report:Mapping the Impacts and Conflicts of Rare-Earth Elements

Related Links
Autonomous University of Barcelona
Space Technology News - Applications and Research

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