New CWR Report! Rare Earths: Shades Of Grey

by China Water Risk 20 July, 2016

Last December in Paris, an epic agreement on climate change was reached, setting the world on the long road towards de-carbonizing global economic growth. Promising technological innovations on clean energy, energy storage and efficiency are considered major drivers of the upcoming “clean, green & smart” revolution.

Rare Earths - Shades Of Grey - China Water Risk Report - June 2016 - ENG

A deep-dive into the underlying new technologies however, leads to a severe yet overlooked problem. Rare earths, a cluster of 17 elements often called the “vitamins of industry”, may prove to be a bottleneck to such “clean, green & smart” innovations like wind turbines, smartphones, electric cars and more.

Rare earth mining and processing is a polluting and toxic process impacting China’s water resources and arable land. It is really only economically viable because environmental costs are not taken into account.

The question is, can we build a sustainable clean, green and smart future on the back of pollution and a black market? We take a close look at these issues in our new report, “Rare Earths: Shades Of Grey – Can China continue to fuel our clean and smart future?” Key highlights from the report below.

Key highlights:

  • Current non-fossil fuel, highly smart and climate-friendly technologies do not work without rare earths;
  • China has been the top global producer since the mid-1990s with 85-90% of global rare earth production;
  • Southern China is where the majority of global Medium Heavy Rare Earth Elements (MHREEs) – the more strategic & less available compared to Light Rare Earth Elements (LREEs) – originate; some MHREEs are solely sourced from China;
  • China has been paying the environmental cost of massive, unregulated rare earth mining and processing with low margins;
  • Mines with their severely polluting extraction activities have contaminated drinking water sources and agricultural fields of local communities. China’s mega-cities further downstream like Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong may be at risk from the toxic contamination upstream;
  • A RMB38 billion environmental bill to clean-up mines in southern Ganzhou city was estimated by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology remains unpaid with little media attention;
  • Naturally the black market, an open dirty secret, hasn’t helped;
  • Since 2006 China has been trying to regulate the industry; latest change in 2016 is the consolidation of the industry into six groups, which account for 99.9% of the country’s production quota for the first half of 2016;
  • In July 2010, China cut its export quotas by 22.5%. This stirred protests from the largest recipients of China’s rare earth supply, the US, Japan and Europe. Complaints were brought to the World Trade Organisation; and
  • Forecasts show rare earth demand increasing vastly, both in China & globally, but will China be able to continue to feed this demand?

Business leaders, policy makers and consumers, all need to rethink how we are going to achieve our low-carbon future in a more environmental and climate-friendly way. Especially since it appears that the only direction for global rare earth prices is up if environmental costs are factored in and remember China is fighting a war on pollution.

The report is available iEnglish  & Chinese.

去年12月,190多个国家在巴黎达成了具有里程碑意义的气候变化协定,宣告全球迈上“去碳化”征程。 清洁能源、储能和能效领域的技术创新,为即将到来的清洁、绿色和智能未来提供了必要的技术支撑。

Rare Earths - Shades Of Grey - China Water Risk Report - June 2016 - CN





  • 若不使用稀土,现行的许多非化石能源、高度智能化和对气候友好的技术可能无法有效运作;
  • 自20世纪90年代中期以来,中国一直是全球最大的稀土生产国,稀土供应量占比85-90%左右;
  • 中国南方是全球最主要的中重稀土产区;中重稀土元素颇具战略价值,供应量远远少于轻稀土,一些元素甚至仅在中国出产;
  • 中国从稀土开发活动中获利甚微,却承担了未受监管的稀土开发活动带来的严重环境后果;
  • 稀土开采活动污染严重:矿区内外,居民的饮用水源和耕地备受污染;矿区下游的“超级城市”(如,广东、深圳和香港),也要面对上游有毒污染物的风险;
  • 工信部估计,清理中国南方城市赣州的稀土污染,大概需要380亿元人民币;对此,媒体关注度有限;
  • 稀土黑市是一项公开而肮脏的秘密,显然无异于解决上述问题;
  • 2006年以来,中国采取多项行动整肃稀土行业;2016年的最新动态是,中国稀土行业已完成集团化整合,六大集团汇集了2016年上半年全国99.9%的稀土矿生产配额;
  • 2010年7月,中国缩减了22.5%的稀土出口配额,引发美国、日本和欧盟等最主要的中国稀土进口国的抗议,后者将贸易争端诉诸世界贸易组织(WTO);
  • 分析显示,无论是中国还是全球范围内,稀土需求都将显著增长;问题是,中国的稀土产量能否继续满足这些需求?