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Does Our Sustainable Future Start in the Mine?

Rare earth elements have reemerged in the news as U.S. anxieties over economic interdependence with China grow. New revelations about social and environmental violence in supply chains, most recently in Myanmar, surface under headlines that have circulated since 2009. They often suggest that rare earth elements are only used for green energy and, thus, that green energy is solely responsible for the devastation wrought by rare earth mining.

Over the past decade, this narrative has profoundly shaped the debate around renewable energy infrastructure and our prospects for mitigating the climate emergency in line with Paris climate goals or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) guidelines. At the same time, massive efforts are underway globally to diversify rare earth supply chains and movements against green colonialism accelerate apace with movements to remove regulatory checks on industry and fast-track mining operations. The debate over where and how the rare earth mining and refining industry is built outside of China is contentious and polarizing, but the intensity of the debate is a sign of progress. We are now confronting the tough questions around mineral acquisition, no longer content to merely decry the injustice of offshoring environmental harm. To reach a brighter, greener future, communities in the Global North are exploring what it means to be more responsible for their mineral needs.

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The concern about rare earth supply chains as a “dirty secret” for green energy is misleading, the unfortunate result of environmental justice concerns deployed in bad faith to protect the fossil-fueled status quo. Though the social and environmental concerns are valid, they are not solely tied to renewable energy. Rare earth elements are used in every major form of energy generation. In fact, since the 1960s, petroleum refining was the largest single domestic use of rare earth elements in the United States, and it has only recently been edged out by magnets. Lanthanum and cerium are used in the process that separates crude oil into various petroleum products, such as gasoline. The combustion catalysts that control automobile emissions also use them. Rare earth elements are significant ingredients in the high-performance alloys that make up the hardware of large-scale hydropower, and crucial in the process of uranium-based nuclear power generation.

The upshot is that even if we fail to transition to renewable energy, rare earth and other mineral supply chain issues are here to stay. But of course we cannot afford to fail, though the challenges are formidable. Even if the “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” were mobilized to limit global warming to 1.5ºC, as noted by the 2018 IPCC Special Climate Report, the difficult question remains of where to source raw materials for the infrastructure necessary to move away from fossil fuels for good.

I recently traveled to Sweden to learn about how the critical mineral debate is playing out in a country that is serious about onshoring major portions of the renewable energy supply chain. There I visited current and prospective mining sites in the north and south; listened to industry associations; toured mines; spoke with construction managers; met with scientists, activists, lawyers, and local and national regulators; and spent time with frontline communities. I am not an expert in Sweden, so I interpreted what I learned there through the lens of other places I have researched as part of a larger global project to map the interplay of legal and illegally-sourced critical materials in the global rare earth frontier across four continents, the deep ocean, and outer space.

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.

According to calculations on 2019 data by Finnish geologist Simon Michaux, we will need to increase production of several energy critical materials many times above all historical production to date to create the first generation of renewable energy infrastructure.

This challenge is sobering.

I encountered Michaux’s calculation at an October 2022 mining industry conference in Kiruna, Sweden, organized by SveMin, the Swedish Association of Mines, Minerals, and Metal Producers. I’d heard similar estimates put forth in the United States in both overt and covert calls to maintain the fossil fueled status quo, but in Sweden they meant something else. After summarizing the magnitude of the material needs, Michaux stated, “But of course we will do it.” Without knowledge of Michaux’s broader work on limits to growth, this could have been interpreted as an imperative to scale up mining as quickly as possible, rather than a clear indictment of business as usual. Nevertheless, after years of being steeped in U.S. climate denialism and what Cara Daggett calls petro-masculinity, I couldn’t help but feel inspired by the can-do messaging that pervaded the conference. The other consistent message there, however, undercut its sense of possibility: Sweden’s widely-celebrated environmental regulations were too complex and blocked urgently-needed new mines. This pits environmental protection against climate change mitigation, and suggests that the only possibility for achieving critical mineral supply chain security is by simply digging new holes in the ground.

The conference took place in a mining town built in Indigenous Sámi lands above the Arctic circle, the location itself indicative of more of the controversies of mining in the name of climate change. The town of Kiruna, in the northernmost county of Sweden, exists mainly because of an immense iron mine operated by Swedish state-owned mining company, LKAB. The county is home to other mines that produce copper, silver, gold, zinc, lead, sulfur-pyrite, phosphorus, vanadium, and titanium. The town had recently been relocated to accommodate the expanding mining operation, which is intended to feed into a mine tailings recycling project to extract not only rare earth elements, but also phosphate fertilizer (important for food security considering import disruptions from Russia) and gypsum construction material (important to reduce demand for concrete, a greenhouse-gas-intensive industry). Ignoring long-standing Indigenous opposition to the theft of their land and culture, mining officials described locals as readily accepting the resettlement program, noting that opposition came mainly from clueless people in faraway places such as Stockholm.

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.

For Europe and the United States, Sweden provides the perfect alternative to China as the chief provider of critical raw materials and related technologies such as batteries and magnets. For many years—though the recent elections may change this—Sweden has been a global leader in environmental governance, a beacon of peace, an advocate for sustainability, and famed for its enlightened social policy. In addition, it has a rich history of mining; it historically provided former empires with critical raw materials, such as iron, copper, and coal. If mining is to be done well anywhere, the logic goes, it is to be done in Sweden.

Two powerful moralizations lend ballast to these arguments. The first employs the same rhetoric as deep sea and space mining proponents: if we don’t mine here (in Sweden, on the deep seabed, in outer space), then we are instead condemning children in the Congo to slave labor, endorsing wholesale environmental destruction in China, and turning a blind eye to the ongoing violence in Myanmar. The second reflects the public-minded ethos that I encountered everywhere during my time in the country: everyone must give up something for the greater good. This logic fuels a host of disparate actions, from cutting down on individual consumption, to accepting the coming wave of extractive industries, to surrendering to impacts such as increased energy and housing prices. These impacts are already being felt in Sweden, particularly in the country’s northmost county, Norrbotten.

Although provisioning the renewable energy transition is a global question, the answer is unavoidably local because mining is local. And all mining, even in the name of the climate, will be hotly contested: most people quite sensibly question an enterprise that will forever alter the landscapes they know and pose unknown hazards to the ecosystems on which their livelihoods, or at least quality of life, depend. It is no surprise, then, that mining has historically been imposed where people have less power to refuse—where labor, livelihoods, and energy systems can be redirected in service of large-scale extraction, generally for non-local benefit. Mining proponents insist that the quality of Sweden’s robust environmental legislation means that the mistakes of global extractive industries won’t be repeated in Sweden and that the country can set a new standard.

Indeed, Sweden is carrying out impressive and innovative efforts. In Norrbotten, the biggest and least populated county in the country, one “fossil-free” hydrogen-powered steel production facility has been piloted, and the massive construction project for a second one is underway. As noted above, plans are in the works for a facility to recycle new mine waste for rare earth elements and other useful materials. Old copper mines are aiming to reopen, and prospective graphite mines are working through their permitting processes, among other mining initiatives. Residents of the region liken it to a new industrial revolution, describing the development as unlike anything they’ve ever seen. In some areas, housing prices have already tripled as local communities brace for the population to at least double. Industrial newcomers say they are drawn to the region because it has cheap and abundant renewable energy produced via hydropower, and that the area is rich in both minerals and open space.

There are three practical problems with the vision of Sweden as the ideal launching pad for a green mining revolution. First, companies present at the SveMin conference are currently mining or are planning to expand mining operations in the Arctic ecosystem maintained for millennia by Sámi reindeer herders. As I have written elsewhere with respect to western China, the northern Amazon, the southwestern United States, and even the Moon and other planets, such landscapes are seldom as empty as non-local mining proponents would claim. Even if not filled with people, many are protected by environmental legislation or enshrined as collectively held commons in international agreements. Northern Sweden is no exception, yet Sámi property rights do not have full legal recognition. One Sámi advocate noted that, despite the widespread view of the area as undeveloped, only 4 percent of Norrbotten county remains available for traditional reindeer herding. The nomadic Sámi traditionally move with the seasons between the western mountains that border Norway and the eastern shore of Sweden on the Baltic Sea. Mines, roads, rails, towns, and industrial sites disrupt these activities.

Like many Indigenous livelihoods around the world, Sámi traditions are crucial to biodiversity conservation, which in turn helps maintain ecosystems that act as carbon sinks. In the Arctic reindeer grazing slows the impacts of climate change. As the Arctic warms, vegetation creeps northward. Vegetation is darker than snow, so it holds more heat from sunlight. This accelerates snowmelt, which accelerates the northward march of still more vegetation, which in turn further accelerates snowmelt, and hence the local and regional effects of climate change. Reindeer munch on shrubs and small trees, keeping more space open for snow, which increases reflectivity, decreases local temperatures, and helps maintain snow cover.

As global climate resilience depends on local climate-resilient systems, the climate imperative to mine in sparsely populated places and on Indigenous lands requires a more sophisticated deliberation and democratic debate: Indigenous objections to mining, even in the name of climate, cannot be reduced to a few stubborn people standing in the way of progress. Indigenous livelihoods are generally the most climate-friendly and climate resilient.

Second, just as the myth of the empty Artic must go, the promise of cheap, abundant energy also appears to be a thing of the past, even in northern Sweden. Even clean, green mining operations require energy. Households have been grappling with increased energy costs already, and rumors are circulating that people will be forced to ration and endure rolling blackouts if the government prioritizes industry over heating homes. If just a few of the proposed mining plans become reality, they will require more energy than Sweden currently produces. Estimates vary, but all agree that a lot more energy is needed, and its potential future sources are subject to debate: (Re)build nuclear facilities? Scale up windfarms and solar? Build dams on protected rivers? Although the particular challenges are unique to northern Sweden, broad questions of energy access, energy justice, and water protection are persistent features of large-scale mining, from South Africa’s platinum belt to the uranium mines in New Mexico.

Finally, a third problem arises when attempting to evade the first: if Indigenous livelihoods take priority over new mining operations, then rare earth and other critical mineral mines will likely be built somewhere else, in some other sparsely populated area where the inhabitants are not Indigenous peoples. Sweden’s debate exemplifies this problem too. The Norra Kärr deposit, located in a rural area in southern Sweden, would seem the perfect alternative to expanding operations in the Arctic environment. However, the proposed site is located near the shores of Lake Vättern, one of the largest bodies of fresh water in Europe, and adjacent to a UNESCO Nature 2000 biosphere reserve. Residents have unanswered questions about the potential risks and long-term impacts of water pollution on their health. Farmers have been told not to worry about how the mining operation might affect the quality and safety of the food they produce and informed instead that the operation will be so safe that the waste could be discharged into the lake without altering its safety rating. Local small business owners worry that the noise of day-to-day operations would disturb livestock and the broader ecosystem that draws tourists. Others, in an observation that I found instructive for understanding fractures between environmental movements and rural populism elsewhere, expressed frustration that urban environmentalists seem more concerned with defending Indigenous people than defending traditional farmers’ livelihoods. No one was able to tell me if this broader dynamic was a factor in the dramatic rightward shift in Sweden’s most recent elections.

Residents expressed skepticism about the need to mine so close to a precious body of water, wondering why Sweden cannot focus on getting the recycling facility running in the North of the country if rare earths are needed so badly. After all, the operation in the North is recycling mine waste—an alternative I advocate for elsewhere. But the proposed recycling facility is a part of the puzzle rather than a solution to all the problems. It too requires more mining and the generation of more mine waste. It is not intended to extract rare earths from electronic waste, which is where 96–99 percent of all rare earths end up. It won’t reprocess existing mine waste, which would ultimately reduce the footprint of the current and past mining operations, but process the waste generated by an expanded iron mining operation. It will require building an additional tailings, or waste, area, which further encroaches on Sámi lands and may not be approved by the environmental courts. Here again, polarized political dynamics between residents of two different “remote” potential mining sites reflects a much broader phenomenon. Local communities are often pitted against each other, directly and indirectly. They are seldom part of the process from the beginning and are often only informed during “consultation” processes, in which they may only react to plans long underway. The process serves as a recipe for conflict and distrust, where people are asked to assess the operation and its potential risks with limited information.

In recent years company personnel have attempted to address these concerns. They dramatically reduced the footprint of the operation and cut the industrial plans for on-site processing, which would have required the transport, use, and storage of hazardous materials on site. They plan to instead send all material offsite for further processing. This turns the mine into more of a rock quarry, where material is dug up and shipped out rather than refined locally. They have showed how the noise of the operations compares to the noise generated by the nearby highway and point out that most people won’t even know the operation is there. The Swedish Geological Survey notes that one of the advantages of the site is its low uranium and thorium levels compared with levels naturally present in the Sweden’s bedrock elsewhere. But fears and distrust persist, in part because this community has been burned before. The waters of Lake Vättern have already suffered contamination from other mining operations and from military dumping practices. Therefore the possibility of any additional pollution, however remote, is unacceptable to defenders of the lake.

Although local opponents to the Norra Kärr projects are maligned as NIMBYs elsewhere in Sweden and in the European Union, the debate surrounding Norra Kärr perfectly examplifies the inherent conflict between mining for climate and local climate resilience. How should these two priorities be weighed? These questions are tough, but asking them at all indicates a greater determination to act on climate change and to source raw materials closer to home. Contrary to the drive to expedite mining by simplifying and removing environmental regulations, contemplating site-specific questions and concerns from multiple perspectives is the only way to mine in a way that can be called “climate-smart,” to borrow a term from the World Bank. In the case of Norra Kärr, the history of contamination helps explain the lack of confidence in regulatory authorities and extractive industries. If they failed to protect the lake before, what assurances do they have that things will be done differently with a rare earth mine?

For now residents of Lake Vättern have compiled a list of specific questions for the company and the government—from transparency around radioactive material to plans to protect the lake from a catastrophic landslide, given the recent history of a landslide and fears around potential seismic activity. They want to know what plans are in place to prevent seepage of contaminants into the ground water and aquifers that feed the springs that run into the lake and are concerned that other material in the ore body has not been disclosed and will not be subject to regulatory controls. Mining experts find that these concerns are in fact minor and the risks are relatively unlikely, but downplaying these concerns does not address local fears. After all, it only takes one extremely unlikely event, or one small but significant pollution control oversight, to do lasting damage.

The latter concern resonates with the environmental and public health damage I researched a decade ago in the rare earth capital of the world—Baotou, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China. Some of the most widespread and visible health effects of rare earth mining were skeletal fluorosis and chronic arsenic toxicity. Neither fluorite or arsenic are rare earth elements or direct byproducts of the refining process, but they are abundant in the ore body mined for rare earths. As mining progressed over decades, they were liberated from their earthly confines, pulverized into fine dust, and concentrated in soils and drinking water. Arsenic and fluoride enter the human body through ingestion or respiration. Windborne residues accumulate on the surface of the soil and are absorbed by food crops and grazing livestock. As rain and snowmelt carry the elements into the soil, they can build up in the water of shallow drinking wells over a wide area. The effects are not noticed immediately, or even in the first years, which makes them particularly pernicious.

Of course, arsenic and fluoride are not the only elements to behave this way. But the key point is that not everything dug up in the ore body is measured or monitored. It is therefore not controlled, at least not until a crisis occurs many decades later, such as the one documented in China. This important regulatory gap must be closed.

Indeed, environmental policy gaps such as these sow distrust between local communities and mining companies and their backers. Proponents, mostly non-local, point out that Norra Kärr could help Europe become self-sufficient in rare earth elements. They are sensitive to the environmental and health concerns from other parts of the world and point out that how things were mined in the past, in China, for example, is not how rare earths will be mined in Sweden in the near future. Company personnel have taken pains to demonstrate how they have complied with existing environmental policy, even as it has changed over the years, and are exasperated by continued local opposition and mistrust.

Yet compliance with existing policy leaves important community concerns unaddressed. This is the key point: current environmental policy, even in Sweden, doesn’t yet count as climate-smart critical materials mining because it allows limited space for community concerns. Protecting land-based community concerns is often crucial for climate resilience. Despite overwhelming pressures to simplify the environmental permitting process and accelerate mine authorization, perhaps what is actually needed is more sophisticated mining regulation that is directly informed by community concerns and deferential to regional climate resilience. Here again, the Sweden case is instructive because identifying gaps in one place can reveal gaps and oversights in other places.

A major blind spot created by the urgency to mine for climate is the fact that, in addition to the share of the rare earth market soaked up by the petroleum industry, military applications are another major consumer. The U.S. military alone emits more greenhouse gases than many industrialized nations. It has also been a major catalyst in re-shoring and near-shoring rare earth production in the United States. Suppose new rare earth mines are opened, with or without the consent of local people in Sweden and elsewhere: What guarantee is there that the rare earths and other critical materials extracted from these places will actually be used to build renewable energy infrastructure? Or will the materials mined in the name of climate be captured by the two most polluting sectors on the planet?

I posed these questions wherever I could: to other attendees at the SveMin conference, to executives and sustainability officers of mining companies, to local and national regulators, to members of parliament. These questions caught people off-guard. Several noted that Sweden does have arms export controls, so perhaps that is something to build on. So too, does the United States. Protecting rare earths and other energy critical materials from capture by the largest buyers, who are also the largest greenhouse gas emitters, may be the determining factor in the renewable energy transition. But such guarantees will require deliberate, anticipatory, and controversial regulation.

Finally, the intense debate around where to open new mines can create the impression that mining is the only option. This is another major blind spot. Yes, the data for the renewable energy transition and building a circular economy indicates that mining must be part of any pathway forward, but it should be second to recycling and reduced wastefulness. Mining in a climate-smart way requires care and democratic deliberation, not haste and authoritarianism. This requires more time than the climate emergency would seem to allow, but we can buy ourselves greater resource security as well as some more time and space to think carefully about mining in socially and environmentally responsible ways if we instead focus on dramatically and immediately scaling up recycling rare earths from electronic waste and current mine tailings. Yes, these are complex and costly propositions, but so too is mining. The difference is that rare earth rich “waste” is abundant; places that can be mined without major climate compromise are not.


Source: Boston Review

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