Home > China, Japan, The Environment > “For A Greener Planet?”

“For A Greener Planet?”

New Year’s day had its share of commercials pushing the “eco” this and “green” that. In Japan, it seems the car companies are ready to roll out electric/hybrid cars. Zero emissions here we come. But is it really going to make life better?

Have you ever wondered what it takes to make these new fangled cars? Cars used to be a bucket of bolts and wires and leather (for the seats). Steel belted rubber hit the pavement and the engines were powered good ole fashioned gasoline, which is derived from environment killing fossil fuels. I’ll stay away from the fact that even though one will not have to stop at a gas station, one has to use electricity, which comes from fossil fuels, for now anyway. Let’s tackle the simplicity of constructing these wonderful machines (and most electronic items that surround our lives).

Rare Earths Unleashed
Ever hear of rare earth minerals? (Some say just rare earths.) To use the word rare is an understatement. These minerals are used in the production of parts that eventually end up in fuel efficient, no-emission producing cars. The advancement of battery technology depends on having a healthy supply of these rare earths. Japan is not rich with these minerals, or other ones for that matter, but thanks to China, Japanese companies have been getting a healthy supply of rare earths. Actually, about 50% of the rare earths mined and refined in China go to Japan. However, that situation took a real blow last fall when a Chinese fishing boat hit a Japanese Coast Guard boat near the Senkaku Islands, which lie in disputed waters. Japan arrested the fishing boat captain, and China stopped shipments of refined rare earths to Japan. Japan rather immediately released the Chinese fishing boat captain. Rare earths miraculously began arriving in Japan from China. You draw the conclusions.

Rare earth oxides, clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium and gadolinium.

Anyway, check out the periodic table of elements and you will see these wonderful minerals in “the so-called lanthanoids, from lanthanum through ytterbium, plus…scandium, yttrium and lutetium.” The New York Times Online has some great background stuff on these rare earths. I won’t go into the science of these elements because quite frankly I have zero clue about this stuff. That said, I do know China controls a lot of it, and here in lies what I believe will be major battleground for 2011, and beyond.

The Reality
Over 95% of the world’s consumable rare earths come out of Chinese mines. America, Australia, and Central Asia make up the majority of the rest of the deposits, but basically, China holds sway over the world’s supply. Why will this cause clash? Let me illustrate through simple examples.

Do you own a flat screen TV? If the answer is yes, you own rare earths. Do you own a cell phone or smart phone? If the answer is yes, again, you own rare earths. Own a computer? – made with rare earths. You want to own a hybrid car? – It will be made with rare earths. In fact, almost all the electronic devices we have in this digital age needs rare earth minerals. Without them, no more of the above. I haven’t even mentioned all the high grade medical technology that relies on this stuff. You didn’t think the MRI machine was made of aluminuum, and some duct tape?

The Environment
So, what does all that have to do with the environment? Simple, getting to the rare earths means destroying a certain environment. Some rare earth’s are really toxic, and if they seep in to the ground water, people will be adversely affected (to put it mildly). Back in the 80s a U.S. based mine had to shut down because rare earth minerals in liquid form got into the local drinking water. Since this time it has been impossible in the United States to get a permit to mine rare earths. China’s environmental regulations are far more lax than the U.S.s. This goes for most of the world outside of Europe and maybe Canada. To get at the amount of rare earths needed to develop our “Eco” or “Green” society we have to muddy some waters. What do you think is happening in China? I can tell you this, in some places, don’t drink the water, and bring your air filter.

Who To Blame?
I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming China for having resources. I just want to point out two things. One, China has a stranglehold on the world, and will not hesitate to apply pressure whenever and wherever necessary. Two, “Eco” isn’t what it appears to be. There are a lot of things to consider when advocating for a “greener” planet. Like Newton’s Law – for every action there is an equal and opposing reaction. When we wash ourselves clean the dirt has to go somewhere.

Tragic Irony
Ironically, there was a time the United States was the leader in this category, but for some reason China now has the technology and advanced techniques to mine and process the minerals. Getting them out of the ground is not so difficult, depending on your environmental stance, but refining and smelding are quite complex, apparently, and the Chinese are good at it, environmental and human health degradation being par for the course.

Why can't the U.S., and the world catch up to this?

You would think the U.S. and Europe could figure out more advanced ways to get at these minerals, but the slates seem blank. For now, China is in the driver’s seat, and taking the world for a nice ride. Hopefully other countries open mines to counteract China’s stranglehold, but that all takes time. I don’t want to deny the Chinese their prosperity, I just want to level the playing field and encourage more competition, which could raise standards for everyone involved in the process.

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