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.

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.

Population Burden and Benefit

Malthus, Paul Ehrlich and many other thinkers, social commentators and writers view people essentially as a burden. It is this perspective that leads to conclusions of doom and gloom not only for humanity but for the planet in general. In contrast to this pessimistic view of humanity is the view epitomized by Julian Simon that people have a lot to offer.

Both points of view are essentially stereotypes. People are neither angels or devils. Rather the writers are talking about the aggregate impact of people on resources such as food, water, fossil fuels and minerals.

Ehrlich is right that human activity spreads over the globe. As population numbers increase the need for new land for housing, factories, entertainment centers etc. follows. As a result wilderness areas are becoming fewer and fewer. The Amazon is being chopped down to clear space for new farming settlements (as well as for logging companies).

In the second bet that Ehrlich proposed with Simon he wanted to count clean air, clean rivers, and unpolluted soil as his indices. Simon wisely turned down the bet because he would have lost. Pollution continues to spread despite attempts by governments, NGOs, charities and communities to clean up nature.

On the other hand, there is a lot to be said for Julian Simon’s insistence that human inventiveness and resourcefulness will finds ways to overcome problems. Scientists and engineers constantly make designs and systems more efficient. Ways of generating clean energy have been pioneered. Agricultural innovation keeps abreast with human numbers. As a problem arises the conditions force humans to find solutions.

The only concern is that the crisis might happen to fast for us to respond with a solution. If global warning accelerates with the release of trapped methane in the perma frost we might not have time to respond. If Antarctic ice melts and the glaciers in Greenland do too 60% of the land mass will be flooded. London, New York, Tokyo, Koh Phangan in Thailand, Fiji, Mombasa, Rio will all become submerged.

We need to take the threat of global warming seriously now.