Rare Earth Metals

Rare earth metals have been hitting the news recently. They are a set of 17 elements that are hardly famous outside of academic and industrial circles. Rare earth metals include such elements as Scandium, Yttrium, Promethium,  Europium and Erbium. These elements are confusingly called ‘rare’ despite being relatively plentiful in the earth’s crust. They are used for a number of applications including lasers, rare earth magnets, nuclear batteries and high index refractive glass. In short they are used in a lot of different ways, and are thus of great economic value.

Although deposits of rare earth metals in ores are widely spread across the world, there are few places that concentrated ore deposits can be found. China in its ever increasing need for raw materials to keep its economic miracle going have developed several rare earth mines. By doing so, China has captured 90% of the rare earth supply in the world.

It was interesting to note that in April this year (2012) Japan, the EU and the USA complained to the World Trade Organization about China reducing its supply of rare earth elements. They accused China of having a monopoly and deliberately holding back supplies in order to drive up the price.

China responded by saying it wanted to standardize the price for rare earth metals and that they were not to be blamed for developing this natural resource when other countries were reluctant to do so.

If prices for rare earth metals continues to go up no doubt other economic superpowers will do something about it.

This anecdote clearly shows the strategic importance of natural resources including those that are less well known. China is positioning itself for the future when resources become more limited.

Energy Consumption and Investment

There’s no reason to be ashamed of consumption in the modern world.  Sure if we all survived off the land, lived in tents and walked everywhere our consumption would drop dramatically but it’s obviously an impractical Utopian ideal.   It’s the real world we live in and consumption is part of that world,  obviously we should minimize whenever possible but there are also other options.

Our consumption can actually be used to stimulate and encourage investment in ‘green energies’.  For example you can stimulate investment in wind, solar and tidal energy simply by paying your electricity provider to supply greener electricity.  In Germany for instance they guarantee higher payments for companies who generate renewable energy.  By ensuring that companies receive a dividend for greener electricity then building wind turbines and  and solar panels become more attractive.   This has massively increased capacity in both these areas, although it should be noted that the cost to German economy has been significant.

The UK developed a policy called The Renewable’s Obligation.  This required that all electricity companies had to purchase a certain proportion of their electricity from renewable generators.  However this meant that the companies created  ‘green tariffs’ without purchasing extra green capacity though, thus minimizing the benefits to capacity.

Although it still makes a difference, the power of the consumer can force greener industries.  Take a very simple example, in an everyday consumer product – the humble lawnmower.  For years the growth in this area has been in electric and petrol mowers because of ease of use, however check on this site now and you’ll find lots of human powered mowers.  Slowly though it has been established that obviously the manual, people powered lawnmower is by far the most environmentally friendly option.  The sector has seen much more growth in the cheap and green manual mower – a very visible sign of greener products becoming more popular.

You can see it online as well, in fact there are many important environmental awareness groups who have been promoting these simple lifestyle changes.  Of course some of these sites don’t get nearly enough exposure, probably as they are not as marketed as strongly and don’t make the most of SEO guidance in designing their sites.

This consumer power can be enacted in virtually any sector.  If we direct our consumption in more environmentally friendly options then industry will respond after all they only react to market forces.  So don’t feel guilty and empower your self to making the world consume but in a much more greener way!  We can see it in the media, when once our screens were filled with programs and shows about consumption, much is now about saving money and reuse – have a look at some of the stuff on Irish TV here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-6JjuQGHJw, a country badly affected by huge austerity measures.

Source: http://www.youtube.com/user/dottslash

Carbon and Population

Carbon and hydrogen are the basis of organic matter on Earth. The most basic hydrocarbon is methane – CH4. Carbon dioxide is usually thought of as inorganic (although some contend that there is no such thing as inorganic carbon chemistry) is carbon bonded with oxygen. Together methane and carbon dioxide are the two most important determinants for global warming.

Both methane and carbon dioxide are relatively inert – in other words they don’t react with other chemicals or compounds and so stay around for a long time. They are both greenhouse gases. They stay in the upper hemisphere and allow sunlight to pass through them but when ultraviolet light tries to leave the atmosphere it encounters the green house gases and a large portion of it is re-directed to earth. This is causing global warming and also increasing the risk of skin cancer.

The causes for global warming are hotly disputed. Most scientists make the industrial revolution the key event in the exponential growth in greenhouse gases. Others also point to ruminant farming that produces lots of methane.

In both cases it is human activity – one for industry and one for agriculture. Humans themselves breathe out carbon dioxide. The connection therefore between humanity’s security on the planet and humanity’s main activities of breathing, industry and agriculture is irrefutable.

Models of climate change show different things. One short term benefit of more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be faster plant growth as plants and algae use carbon dioxide in photosynthesis to make energy to grow.

In the longer term, the rising temperature will melt ice caps and glaciers and cause sea levels to rise.

The ways to lower the carbon count are within our power. Trees, plants and flora in general are great sinks for carbon. Another method is to have a paradigm shift in agriculture and industry. Less livestock would reduce methane emissions. And new systems of energy not based on carbon would also have a positive effect.

If no large scale action is taken population numbers will decrease as climatic conditions become more harsh.