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The Dark Side of Clean Energy and Digital Technologies by Guillaume Pitron, review — our dirty future

January 6, 2021

By Paul Homewood

 

A new book review in The Times:

 

 

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When Donald Trump offered to buy Greenland from Denmark in 2019 it was dismissed as illegal and absurd. However, the president’s expression of interest was far from absurd, says Guillaume Pitron. Under its soil Greenland boasts one of the largest concentrations of the rare metals that the world will need to power electric cars, computers, mobile phones, robots, solar power plants, artificial intelligence and many high-tech “green” innovations that have not been dreamt up yet. If Trump were after those minerals, buying Greenland would have been a smart move.

The global production and sales of rare metals are dominated by China. It mines so much of them on home soil and controls so much of their extraction in Africa and elsewhere that it oversees up to 95 per cent of the global production of certain minerals. This puts Beijing in charge of “the oil of the 21st century”, writes Pitron, which is a problem for western nations because it means China can restrict supply and drive prices up or down at will, as Opec does with oil. We have “entrusted a precious monopoly of mineral sovereignty to potential rivals”, he notes.

China’s dominance is not the only problem with the rare earth metals market. In our rush to develop new green technologies, Pitron argues, we forget that many of the innovations that we are told will help to combat climate change are very dirty. Electric cars, it’s true, do not emit CO2 or NO2. But when you factor in the environmental cost of extracting all the rare earth minerals that go into making batteries, it is far from clear whether their overall footprint is better than existing petrol models.

Discarded devices waiting to have their precious metals extracted

Discarded devices waiting to have their precious metals extracted

CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/GETTY IMAGES

Rare earth minerals production is very energy intensive. Extracting a single kilogram of some requires mining as much as 1,200 tonnes of rock. “Clean energy is a dirty affair,” Pitron writes. He drives home his point by touring villages near polluted lakes in China that are known locally as “cancer villages”.

We all love the communications revolution spawned by mobile phones, tablets, PCs and video and audio streaming services. But Pitron points out that all the devices we use consume rare metals and that the servers that power them are hugely energy hungry. He cites studies showing that the communications industry consumes 10 per cent of global electricity and produces 50 per cent more greenhouse gases than the aviation industry.

And all this is before we get to the sulphurous issue of recycling. Recycling large electric car batteries could be the next diesel scandal, he warns. He quotes Carlos Tavares, the boss of the newly merged Peugeot Fiat group, who warns: “If we are instructed to make electric vehicles, authorities and administrations must assume the scientific responsibility of this choice. I don’t want to find that in 20 or 30 years we’ve fallen short in aspects such as battery recycling.”

If the message of this book is a tough one, it can be tough going too. It was written in French and has too often been translated literally. Pitron’s style is “tell, not show”, making it read more like a lecture on the geopolitics of raw materials than what it purports to be: a wake-up report on a looming crisis. There are too many unnamed sources for my taste. And some of the sources we’re introduced to I’m not sure we need to be burdened with. The deliberations of the China Nonferrous Metal Mining Group Corporation will be of scant interest to most readers.

Yet it is worth persevering with, because much of what he says will be new to readers. I did not know, for instance, that America’s most high-tech weapons are dependent on magnets and other components made in China using rare metals mined in China. Nor that up to 90 per cent of electric car batteries are made in China. This dependency makes the issue of Chinese-made Huawei communications equipment creeping into our telecoms networks look like small beer.

I also had no idea that as well as all the rare earth minerals we will need to extract to drive the green energy revolution we will also need to mine vast quantities of more everyday metals. The case of wind turbines is alarming. To keep up with projected market growth in turbine demand and construction will require by 2050 some 3,200 million tonnes of steel, 310 million tonnes of aluminium and 40 million tonnes of copper, Pitron calculates. Chuck in all the raw materials needed to build everything from billions of green car chassis to new solar power plants and “by 2050, we will have to extract more metals from the subsoil than humanity has extracted since its origin. Our 7.5 billion contemporaries will absorb more mineral resources than the 108 billion humans who have walked the Earth to date.”

In the post-Covid, climate emergency era, we will need to rebuild business and consumer industries in a genuinely responsible way. This book contains few solutions to the problems it identifies. But, after the dieselgate scandal, recognising that the latest technologies might not be as green as we like to think is a good place to start planning for a better world.

The Rare Metals War: The Dark Side of Clean Energy and Digital Technologies by Guillaume Pitron, trans Bianca Jacobsohn

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/bff2a962-49d3-11eb-81f9-1b786036a268

19 Comments
  1. yonason permalink
    January 6, 2021 10:49 am

    “The Dark Side Of Clean Energy….”

    That implies there’s a Light Side which we have yet to see.

  2. Hugh Sharman permalink
    January 6, 2021 10:53 am

    Thanks Paul! As if we did not already know that “net zero emissions” by 2050 has not been honestly costed, this book tears away the myth that it is achievable and virtuous.

  3. JimW permalink
    January 6, 2021 11:10 am

    Its not that rare earth elements are really that rare, but the extraction process is incredibly detrimental to people and the environment. China leads because its the only nation willing to put up with the pollution on a vast scale. There is absolutely nothing ‘green’ about green energy or the green new deal. Like most ‘ideas’ these days, its brainless and without merit. But it makes you feel good, honest!

  4. Mad Mike permalink
    January 6, 2021 11:58 am

    I’ve been thinking about debt. Its not a thing I have overmuch of nor keeps me awake at night but the debt I’m talking about is Government debt which is my debt in the end of course.

    Regardless of our views on the virus and the way it has been handled, the one thing that we can’t get away from is that it has landed us with billions of extra debt and an adversely affected economy and therefore our ability to repay it. The extra borrowing might well be over £1tn before this over. This is something the credit agencies will be looking at carefully.

    When it comes to the new Green Economic Plans, the UK will need to borrow even more to buy all those heat pumps, electric cars, transmission lines etc. This borrowing might be done directly by us as individuals (heat pumps etc) or massively by HMG. Private industry will no doubt chip in but only if they will get a decent return which inevitably relies on subsidies, grants etc. just as it does now. In other words extra Government spending. It is likely that this new switch in industry will not be available for export even if it does add to GDP so we can say that the borrowing to finance all this will be for consumption not economic expansion of the wealth creating type.

    All this doesn’t look good for lenders seeking safe returns. They will be looking at a borrower that has an increasingly uncertain revenue earning future that has racked up a huge of amount of debt in a short period of time and has yet to determine a method of repayment. On top of that they will see that the extra borrowing is essentially for consumption.

    Now, I’m not an international banker but I would say that, if I was, I’d require a pretty high percentage return to offset the added risk.

    Perversely this covid epidemic might just make the ridiculous Green path impossible to take.

    • StephenP permalink
      January 6, 2021 1:35 pm

      I have been puzzled as to where all the money has been before we borrowed it.
      Have we borrowed it from the Chinese?
      I can’t see it coming from the USA as they have the same debt problems as we have.
      Or, horrid thought, has the money come from thin air or the printing press?
      Are we going to see a Covid Bubble when it comes to repaying the debt?

  5. James Carless permalink
    January 6, 2021 12:05 pm

    Pensana Rare Earths is a company planning to build a more environmentally friendly rare earths production system using material from a new mine in Angola and a new refinery at Saltend on the Humber here in the UK. I am a shareholder and no advice intended about buying their shares but it might be interesting to see how a ‘greener’ production method is possible going forward. They will release a bankable feasibility study this month and that will likely tell if the project is actually going to fly. pensana.co.uk is the website. I am not in favour of these windmills but let’s face it a lot are going to built by government mandate all over the world.

    • Harry Passfield permalink
      January 6, 2021 12:39 pm

      James, I am trying to get my head round the sheer amount of raw materials being shipped from Angola to Humberside to be refined – in a more environmentally-friendly way, not to mention the huge number of shipping movements required and the (environmental) problem of what to do with the tailings. It sounds not much better than shipping trees from the USA to Drax.

      • mikewaite permalink
        January 6, 2021 10:10 pm

        50 years ago , if you were researching new materials employing rare earth oxides you might well, as I did, buy them from a firm in Widnes (Cheshire : Rare Earth Products, a joint venture initially of RTZ and Jonson Matthey.
        It still exists, specialising in materials for magnets, but under a different name: Less Common Metals Ltd .
        Some relevant history here :
        https://wcnwchamber.org.uk/less-common-metals-ltd-a-brief-history/

        I wish we could stop assuming that we can not do things any longer here in the UK and have to rely on China for every thing .
        We have some excellent chemists, physicists, materials scientists It is only the pathetic ignorance and stupid theories of politicians and journalists that stops us making the most of our native talent.

  6. Harry Passfield permalink
    January 6, 2021 12:30 pm

    Oh what a golden opportunity for Tara Shine to live up to her name and ‘scientific’ qualifications: she could critique the book and tell us all why mining such quantities of materials is good for the environment she tells us is her dream. Perhaps someone will bring the book to her attention…

  7. Broadlands permalink
    January 6, 2021 1:01 pm

    “If we are instructed to make electric vehicles, authorities and administrations must assume the scientific responsibility of this choice. I don’t want to find that in 20 or 30 years we’ve fallen short in aspects such as battery recycling.”

    Recycling of batteries will be trivial compared to the recycling or disposition of conventional vehicles as well as toxic solar panels and rusting wind turbines. The Greens may not have considered the unintended consequences and collateral damages of what it is they demand and wish for.

  8. James Carless permalink
    January 6, 2021 1:35 pm

    Harry, cutting US forest to burn in UK is nonsense in every single way. I do not see any link with Pensana’s plans. A rare earths magnet facility in UK should be good for the UK economy. I think building the refinery in Angola (and saving shipping costs) would be tricky due to lack of expert personnel and chemical reagents. I am not clear myself of the volumes to be transported to Saltend from Angola but I do not expect it would be more than a few tens of thousands of tonnes a year. No doubt the bankable feasibility study will clarify.

  9. Curious George permalink
    January 6, 2021 3:30 pm

    Will China buy Greenland from Denmark?

    • yonason permalink
      January 6, 2021 4:39 pm

      Truman made an offer in 1946, and Trump has said he’d be interested. But Denmark turned them down. Apparently, the citizens of Greenland would, by law, have to approve, but I don’t know if anyone has polled them for on their opinion yet. I’m guessing (hoping) they would be savvy enough to overwhelmingly reject an offer by China.

  10. yonason permalink
    January 6, 2021 7:00 pm

    Communist China = The Enemy of Everyone!
    https://patriotssoapbox.com/world/chinas-belt-and-road-initiative-a-trojan-horse-for-global-domination/

  11. James Carless permalink
    January 7, 2021 8:50 am

    Fully agree with you Mike Waite. I think this is the company and it moved to Ellesmere Port http://www.lesscommonmetals.com ?

  12. January 7, 2021 9:09 am

    Once again a writer who does not seem to understand at least one aspect of electric vehicles, Quote:-
    “Electric cars, it’s true, do not emit CO2 or NO2.”

    Nothing could be further from the truth, just because the vehicle has no emissions does not mean that it is not responsible for emissions in it’s use.
    As it stands, electric vehicles and heat pumps will be responsible for emissions proportionate to their use. And as their use is an extra grid load that power will be generated largely by gas generation, some coal and biomass. We can expect a rise in CO2 emissions from generation as more and more load is added to the grid, it’s inevitable.
    The grid cannot be decarbonised at a rate to match the increase in demand especially as a lot of nuclear is due to close in the next ten years, will Hinkley Point be running then?

  13. Justin permalink
    January 7, 2021 9:23 am

    Thanks Paul for your work and effort but is there any point in discussing any of the climate change/green deals/warmism etc when it seems that this will happen no matter what is said or done.

    It seems futile to even try to resist even when proof is highlighted it can never gain enough daylight to make any difference . .

  14. Coeur de Lion permalink
    January 7, 2021 2:35 pm

    Check out BP’s energy forecast for 2035. That little coloured smear in the top right corner is ‘renewables’ which also includes biomass. Increase in Renewables cannot even match global increase let alone sub for the mass.

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