Posts tagged: green technology

Rare Earth Minerals – China Seeks to Make them More Rare

By , June 15, 2010
China's rare earth mine in Inner Mongolia

China's rare earth mine in Inner Mongolia

Last November, China Law & Policy reported on an obscure-sounding group of minerals found at the bottom of the periodic table: rare earth minerals.  While you may never have heard of them, you likely use them.  With their lightness in weight and resistance to heat, rare earths have been instrumental in many technological innovations, from color television, to laptops, to the iPhone.  Rare earths are also essential to any company that wants to succeed in the green technology revolution.  Rare earths are needed to create batteries for electric cars and for wind turbines.  Expect demand to increase.

But while demand increases, the global supply will decrease.  Why?  China currently produces 95% of the world’s rare earth minerals and in the beginning of June, the Chinese government announced that it was considering nationalizing its rare earth industry.  As China becomes a leader in green technology, its own domestic demand increases, leaving less to export.

Monday’s PBS Newshour did a 10 minute analysis of the rare earth dilemma, China’s demands and what it means to the U.S. as it seeks to catch up in the green technology revolution.  To watch the video or read the transcript, click here.

Happy 40th? – Congress Says Bye, Bye Climate Change Legislation

By , April 27, 2010

HappyEarthDayWith the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day this past April, Americans celebrated with vigor and advocated saving the planet.  Well, most Americans did.  As China-observer Marcy Nicks Moody notes, recent breakdown between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate could forestall any hope of the U.S. moving forward on climate change legislation.  And could allow China to remain ahead of the green technology game for a long time.

Happy 40th? – Congress Says Bye, Bye Climate Change Legislation

By Marcy Nicks Moody

Last Thursday, Americans celebrated the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day, established by U.S. Senator Gaylord

Earth Day Founder, Sen. Gaylord Nelson

Earth Day Founder, Sen. Gaylord Nelson

Nelson in 1970 to raise awareness of environment-related issues. Last Sunday, thousands gathered on the National Mall in Washington, DC to participate in the Earth Day Climate Rally with the alleged goals to “stop protecting polluters,” “enact comprehensive climate legislation,” and “demand accountability from Washington.” There were exhortations to grow kitchen gardens along with clamorous chanting of the word ‘green.’ The weather was glorious, and spirits did not seem dampened by the blow dealt to climate legislation by the U.S. Senate just the day before.

Sandwiched between Earth Day and the Earth Day Climate Rally was the day on which another U.S. Senator, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, announced that he would no longer participate in negotiations on a Senate version of proposed climate legislation. In a letter to colleagues Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-CT), Senator Graham cited his disappointment over reports that the Democratic leadership of the Senate was planning to take up discussions of immigration before addressing climate change as a reason for his changed stance.

Senators Graham, Kerry, and Lieberman were the primary architects of this bill-to-be and had been planning to formally announce the bill with the White House last Monday. But any debate on immigration would make it impossible to deal with national energy and climate change policy, the South Carolina Senator said. So he won’t support the draft climate change bill, in spite of the fact that he helped create it. Senator Graham won’t support some legislation because talking about something else would just be too painful or distracting? This seems a bit irrational.

In Happier Times - Senators Graham, Kerry & Lieberman

In Happier Times - Senators Graham, Kerry & Lieberman

Setting aside speculation over why Senator Graham radically and suddenly changed positions, the simple fact that he did it is disappointing. To be sure, the Senator is not the only culpable party in this turn of events. He is likely under enormous pressure from fellow Republicans to stop negotiating with Democrats. And if reports are true that both the White House and the Democratic Senate leadership had been planning to take up immigration first not because it could pass (the House has not yet discussed the matter) or because it is more urgent (climate change is equally as urgent: the longer we wait to address climate change, the more expensive it will be), but because it could present a useful wedge issue for the Democrats in the coming election cycle, then Senator Graham has every right to be peeved.

But unless Graham’s strategy has the result of getting climate change legislation considered in this session of Congress, it is bad for Americans. The science demonstrating the negative and possibly catastrophic consequences of anthropogenic climate change is overwhelming. That emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) must decrease is flagrantly obvious. And that the United States, which prides itself on its innovative strength, global leadership, and remains the largest economy in the world, has still not acted on this evidence is disgraceful.

It is also bad for business. The clean technology market is big and growing, but without the passage of climate change legislation, signals to U.S. businesses as to the future prices of clean versus pollution-intensive energy remain unclear. A recent Pew report on clean energy in the G-20 economies notes that appropriate domestic policies—such as those aimed at reducing GHG emissions or incentivizing the use of renewable energy—have tended to positively affect a country’s competitive position in the clean-tech market. The winners in this race include Brazil, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, and—who else?—China. The United States does not make the shortlist of enlightened energy and environment policymakers of the rich world.

Lights out for the U.S. in the race for green tech?

Lights out for the U.S. in the race for green tech?

In fact, the Pew report finds that China has already overtaken the United States on several important measures (including, of course, its dubious distinction of being the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses for the past several years). In 2009, for instance, China overtook the United States for highest financing of and investment in clean energy. And it is likely to overtake the United States in installed renewable energy capacity soon. Though targets are not always met, Beijing has set ambitious targets for wind, biomass, and solar energy usage, and these targets do not exist solely not to be met. They may currently be aspirations, but that’s more than the United States currently has to go on.

Mitigating climate change and making U.S. clean-tech business better is accomplished by limiting greenhouse gas emissions. The best way to limit GHG emissions is to put a price on them. Indeed, the fact markets have not already done so has been described by climate expert Nicholas Stern as “the greatest market failure the world has ever seen.” The climate legislation which has been stalled and stalled and stalled again in the U.S. Senate is generally envisaged as a cap and trade system that would cap GHG emissions at a certain level, create a scheme in which licenses to emit GHGs could be traded, and eventually shrink gross amount of permissible emissions. This amounts to an indirect tax on GHG emissions, and though it is far from ideal, it would create a price for emissions at the margin and therefore makes strides in the right direction.

As the Senate continues to dawdle, the Earth Day Climate Change rally on the National Mall was far from unimportant. Especially in a democracy like the United States, it is important that citizens buy into ‘going green.’ It is important, frankly, that green be cool. But though considerations of how to green one’s lifestyle are admirable, they are not game changers. Coal is still cheap; Whole Foods is expensive, and “going green” remains largely the privilege of the wealthy in society.  Unless we change our laws.  The Senate should get to work. The alternative is to accept an outcome in which a hundred U.S. kitchen gardens bloom while a hundred Chinese companies compete for the top spots in clean-tech. In addition to, well, catastrophic climate change.

Marcy writes about China. In 2007-08, she was a Fulbright Scholar in China, where she was also a Research Fellow with the U.S.-Asia Law Institute. She received an M.A. in East Asian Studies from Columbia University and graduated from Brown University.

U.S., E.U. WTO Complaint Against China Leaves Out Green Tech Essential Rare-Earth Elements

By , November 8, 2009

Last Wednesday, November 4, the European Union, the United States and Mexico filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) against China for its quotas, export duties and minimum export prices for raw materials essential to the manufacture of steel and aluminum.  Noticeably absent from the complaint though, is any mention of China’s restriction on rare-earth elements.

Rare Earth - Much More than a Band from the 70s.

Rare Earth - Much More than a Band from the 70s.

The raw materials at issue in the WTO complaint, while important to key manufacturing industries in the US and the EU, in many ways represent the economy of old.  Rare-earth elements, which China also heavily restricts export of, represent the economy of tomorrow; many of these rare-earth elements are indispensable for a greener, more environmentally-friendly world.  The magnetic properties of rare-earth elements like dysprosium and terbium are important for wind turbines and essential for the production of long-lasting, light-weight batteries for electric cars.

China, and its rare-earth enriched Inner Mongolia, account for 93% of the global production of rare-earth elements and 99% of the world’s dysprosium and terbium.  While countries have sought to expand green technologies, thus increasing the demand for rare-earth elements, China has continued to restrict the amount exports of rare-earth materials.  This past September, China, for the third year in a row, lowered the amount of rare-earth materials allowed for export by 6% overall, double-digits though for certain rare-earth materials .

China wants not just the monopoly on the production of rare-earth materials, but also on the more profitable business of producing down-stream products like electrical cars and wind turbines.  Japan, which is the largest importer of rare-earth materials because of Toyota and Honda’s drive to expand the market for hybrid and electric cars, feels the biggest pinch of all.  In fact, Japan purchases from a fifth to a quarter of its rare-earth materials on the black market, a black market where Chinese sellers thwart their own government’s restrictions.

In addition to its own domestic production, China, with its large foreign reserves to spend, has attempted to be a controlling share holder in other countries’ rare-earth industries.  Last spring, Chinese government-controlled mining companies purchased a 25% share of Australian rare-earth mining company Arafura.  China’s offer to purchase 51% of another Australian rare-earth mining company, Lynas, was likely going to be denied by the Australian government because of the Chinese government’s mishandling of the Rio Tinto case and the detainment of Australian citizen.  The Chinese mining company pulled out of the deal before it could be denied by the Australian government.

After China’s CNOOC’s failed bid to purchase California oil company Unocal in 2005, CNOOC  made overtures to purchase a single asset of Unocal’s: Mountain Pass, the U.S.’ only rare-earth mine.

Thus, the future of some green technology is beholden to China.  But Japan, instead of investing in China’s rare-earth elements industry, is looking to invest elsewhere – likely because of the danger in investing in a country with a fickle commitment to rule of law.  Japan has signed a deal with one of Kazakhstan’s largest mining companies for rare-earth excavation and is looking to Australia, Canada, Vietnam and the U.S. as alternate suppliers.  However, it will take at least 10 years before any of these new mines will produce rare-earth materials.  Until then, anticipate delayed development of green technologies and hopefully a WTO complaint.

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