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Rare Earth Mining

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Rare earths are central to the development of cleaner technologies that don’t destroy the livable climate. But there are still massive externalities to these mining operations. Who should pay the price for this?

Though I still have a lot more to learn, it is clear that the challenges in Sweden shed light on larger debates unfolding around the globe as different societies grapple with the larger questions of the moment: How do we get the raw materials necessary for the renewable energy transition? How do we balance the urgent imperative to mine to meet the global climate emergency with the equally urgent need to protect and strengthen local and regional climate resilience? Global or national climate resilience is, at the end of the day, comprised of local landscapes best protected by agrarian and Indigenous livelihoods. Agrarian and Indigenous livelihoods tend to be disproportionately impacted by extractive industries, yet most climate mitigation and adaptation proposals presume the expansion of extractive industries. So who pays the price? Who determines which sacrifices are necessary or worthwhile? These questions complicate the ideal of Sweden as the perfect place to launch the green mining revolution. To be sure, this debate is unfolding in many places, from South Dakota to Northern Madagascar. But because of Sweden’s strong international reputation in environmental governance, how the mining question is settled there will set the standard, for better or for worse, for the rest of the world.

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Sweden’s domestic mining activities are not solely essential to the people of Sweden and to the continued energy and economic security of Europe—they are also a key factor in achieving Paris climate goals. For this reason, the conference felt like an assembly of first responders to the climate emergency, with the palpable energy of a mission-driven community. Dr. Michaux’s numbers confirmed what had first motivated so many in the room: we can’t build renewable energy infrastructure quickly enough because we don’t produce enough raw materials. As many speakers noted, the unavoidable fact is that our sustainable future begins in the mine. 

Mining and processing profoundly and often irreversibly transform landscapes and land-based livelihoods, meaning mining will unavoidably disrupt or undermine local climate resilience to some degree. Mining proponents insist that it is short-sighted to cease or block mining for a few Indigenous communities to be able to herd reindeer or for a few farmers to continue to graze cattle or grow their crops. The climate emergency demands much more decisive action, they contend. 

This logic is compelling on many levels. We cannot build wind turbines, solar panels, batteries, or electric vehicles without the raw materials. And we cannot build a circular economy that operates at scale until we build the first generation of renewable energy infrastructure and vehicles. There are, thus, many reasons for turning Sweden into Europe and North America’s mining backyard: the climate emergency, national security, consumer demand, tightening regulations, and global environmental justice. 

The national security argument hinges on the collapse of confidence in globalized economic specialization for critical raw material provision. Russia’s efforts to sabotage European energy security, alongside the view that China can no longer be considered a reliable partner due to its coziness with Russia, lends this argument immediate urgency. As for consumers, they have for decades been appalled at the social and environmental violence of rare earth mining and processing in East Asia and are effectively demanding certified cleaner products from European firms. Given the ongoing challenges of verifying ethical practices across far-flung supply chains, firms have been looking for ways to source material closer to home. This touches on the environmental justice argument. Major consuming economies have long been content to outsource environmental degradation, enjoying cheap goods produced at the expense of local environments and workers in faraway places. If the energy transition is to be just, the Global North must source raw materials closer to home.

Whole thing is very thoughtful and well worth your tiempo.

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