Rare earths and sustainability

(Originally posted on Wednesday 17 November, 2010)

This week I got involved in the national discussion about China’s decision to impose export quotas on its rare earths, a decision which has strategic significance for many high tech industries globally and also for the embryonic Australian rare earths sector.

The National Science Media Centre in Adelaide organised a media briefing involving a range of experts and I was invited to provide a sustainability perspective, the grab from which resulted in a little media coverage on mining landfills. 

Actually my take on the issue started with the assumption that the rapid rise in global dependence on technologies using rare earths raises some sustainability issues, particularly the application of the precautionary principle and full cost pricing in ensuring that valuable materials are not wasted on low level disposable products – many of which end up in a landfill because they are not being designed for re-use or recycling. Ipods and mobile phones come to mind.

I also ventured that there were dangers in building a pathway to the future which may not be sustained because of resource exhaustion.

Technological sustainability is put at risk also when geo-political and commercial interests collide as seems to be happening with the Chinese decision to link rare earth exports to inwards investment in higher value adding infrastructure.

Given the sensitivities around rare earths and their myriad applications in most critical sectors from defence to health and communications and cleantech, we should discourage a rush to utilise these materials in applications for which there may be substitute or competing technologies – although there is not much of that on the horizon at the moment.

Indeed that was another point I made: we do not do ourselves or future generations a service by building too narrow a technology path into the future.

Like resilient natural systems the technological options should be diverse and competing.

In public policy terms, there is no doubt also that resource optimisation for rare earths means full recovery and re-use and indeed in future there may be a case to be made for digging up landfills and retrieving these elements along with all the gold and silver and copper in disposed computers and electronic gear – although much of that is now being recovered through second and third world cottage industries.

The issue also begs the question as to whether Australia needs a strategic policy on materials that might simply be too important to export willy nilly. With something like 10% of the known rare earth deposits Australia will be a serious player in time and we should be investing in materials sciences that will give us the knowledge and the skills to base advanced materials manufacturing here in this country.

After all these are high value outputs that do not require sweatships to make them competitive on global markets. You can hear the briefing at http://www.aussmc.org/2010/11/media-alert-rare-earth-minerals-squeeze-are-our-gadgets-at-risk/

Yesterday Michael Cathcart on ABC Radio National’s Bush Telegraph did a follow up panel interview with a representative of Arafura Resources – a rare earths miner, Professor Brent McInnes, economist and geologist at Curtin University in Western Australia, and me.

You can hear or download that piece at http://www.abc.net.au/rural/telegraph/content/2010/s3067706.htm


Author: Professor John Cole OAM

Professor Emeritus and founder of the Institute for Resilient Regions at the University of Southern Queensland and Honorary Professor, UQ Business School, The University of Queensland.

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