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The Energy Transition’s Downsides

February 11, 2022

Electric vehicles, wind and solar power: The age of fossil fuels is grinding to a halt. At the same time, demand for other raw materials is rising. It’s a billion-dollar business, with serious environmental consequences.

Symbolbild E-Fahrzeuge an einer Ladesäule
Image: Wolfram Steinberg/picture alliance
China | Baotou | Abbau von seltenen Erden
Image: Weng Huan/Chinafotopress/dpa/picture alliance

These days, rare-earth metals like graphite, copper and lithium are key components in many hi-tech products. These include not just smartphones and laptops, but electric vehicles and wind power plants, as well. Despite being key to an environmentally-friendlier future, the extraction process for these rare metals often completely fails to take into account workers’ health and safety or basic environmental standards.

Seltene Erden Mine
Image: Wang chun lyg/Imaginechina/picture alliance

China is a market leader in the mining and trading of rare-earth metals. The negative consequences can be seen in places like the province of Heilongjiang. Here, toxic residues from the graphite extraction process can be found several kilometers from the graphite mines. Copper and lithium, used in the production of batteries, are mined on a huge scale in Chile and Bolivia.

The global trade in raw materials is a burgeoning billion-dollar business. But reserves are finite. That’s why consumption should be reduced and recycling quotas for these sought-after resources increased.

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