What are cancer villagers?
As the name may suggest, cancer villages are areas where cancer rates exceed national or global averages. This is often because of industrial and/or agricultural contamination of nearby land. In 2013, Chinese NGOs and the media suggested there were over 459 of them spread throughout the country. One of the main reasons is the mining and refining of rare metals for electric vehicles. Dalahai, a community across from the mining lake in Baotou, is known as a cancer village. Li Xinxia, one of the locals says, “cancer, strokes, high blood pressure…almost all of us are affected”. These communities are so deeply affected by the practices of billion-dollar mining companies that all of their water is contaminated, their soil is unusable and the air is pure smoke. “We know the air we are breathing is toxic and that we don’t have that much longer to live”. The damage to these poor people is horrific. Men under the age of 30 have either developed white hair or entirely lost it and children are growing up without teeth. In 2010, 66 residents in Dalahai alone had died from cancer, based on Chinese press reporters.
The Chinese authorities of recent years have stopped counting contamination events all because they happen too often. “Fundamentally, the situation isn’t getting any better” claims Liu Lican, an author of a book on cancer villages.
The government doesn’t seem overly interested in solving the matter either. Whilst they have admitted that this is a growing issue, annual funding and implementing tougher ecological standards are not happening. According to Quartz, “It spent $112 billion on this [cleaning up water] from 2005-10” but said it would spend around $850 billion.
This cancer epidemic is only bound to surge as demand for rare metals rises. As a rare metals expert states, “the Chinese people have sacrificed their environment [and health] to supply the entire planet with rare earths”.
As the world backs away from coal and oil, we are now entering the rare metals arena. We cannot continue to mine oil to power our cars because soon we’ll run out. Who’s to say the same doesn’t happen for rare metals? As previously mentioned, electric vehicles require substantially more rare materials like lithium, cobalt, copper, aluminium, gold and silver – to name a few. Experts predict, that by 2040 the world will need to mine 5 times more tellurium, 3 times more rare earth metals, 12 times more cobalt and 17 times more lithium than in recent times. Global metal demand continues to climb to such an extent, that to meet the demands of 2050, this current generation will have to mine more metals than our previous 500 generations! If current demand continues, we risk running out of more than 15 rare metals within the next 50 years, as well as 5 normal metals like iron.
Many large mines across the globe are threatened with exhausting the last of their minerals by 2027 with metals like vanadium, terbium, dysprosium, europium and even cobalt heading down a path of ‘extinction’. Armin Reller, a chemist at Augsburg University states, “many of these metals are present in only minute amounts, a milligramme or less” and Chinese “mines might run dry in just 15-20 years“. When around 700 million electric cars are on the road in 2050 and demand continues to escalate, what happens when rare metals become the next oil?
The Chinese monopoly:
Due to low labour costs, cheap capital, near non-existent environmental regulations and large state subsidies, rare metal mining has become an enormous industry for China. According to the Foreign Policy Research Institute, China now produces over 97% of the rare metals for the entire planet. Besides the environmental complications of Chinese rare metal production, their monopoly has generated huge political tensions between other nations that have very little control over what China chooses to do. The country of 1.4 billion has such a grasp on an industry that the entire world needs, that if any country ignites political tension with China, they risk being prohibited from metals vital to modern technologies.
In January 2022, a new threat emerged, with China announcing the creation of a new state-owned enterprise called ‘China Rare Earth Group’. The new enterprise will control 60% – 70% of Chinese rare metal production, contributing to 30% – 40% of global supply. In 2017, China produced 44% of indium, 55% of vanadium, nearly 65% of fluorspar and natural graphite, 71% of germanium and 77% antimony consumed globally. Despite possible trade embargos by the Chinese, the country itself will ensure its people have first access if need be. Due to China’s population, the country itself consumes 45% of global production, with the power to eradicate all access to other countries, as its population and demand climb.
Not only does China have the ability to control 97% of the world’s ‘future’ and hoard nearly all supplies for its own, but now has the billion-dollar profits to go after mining groups in other countries that are also global necessities. These cases have occurred numerous times when Chinese firms have bought out lithium or cobalt giants in continents such as Africa and/or Southern America.
To show just how disruptive China can and will be, in August 2001, the country enforced quotas on molybdenum to the European Union as well as imposed massive taxes on metals in 2007 and 2008. Countries like Japan understand these issues all too well. A Japanese diplomat claims, “I attended many meetings between the Japanese minister of industry and Chinese government representatives. Whenever we raised the issue of rare earths, the Chinese made it plain that they could at any point turn off the tape”.
The increased prices for example, also place other industries in turmoil. Between 2006 and 2008 China increased titanium prices 10-fold, placing “French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation in a serious supply predicament”.
As large mining businesses diverted their practices to China, global demand has soared. So far no major political issues have generated global metal constraints. However, as China’s dominance rises and global reliance on electric cars escalates, what happens when China does use its colossal power to drain other countries of their technological development?
Western blue skies:
Between 1965 and 1985, the United States was the global leader in rare metal mining, it was only in recent decades has China asserted its dominance – but largely thanks to western environmental regulations. During the United States’ dominance, Molycorp was one of the leading mining companies, yet the monopoly came with large environmental issues. The ‘Mountain Pass Rare Earth Mine‘ was Molycorp’s mining haven, however, as practices began expanding and more metals were extracted, the company was thrown in the spotlight due to huge ecological destruction. The Great Basin Resource Watch executive director claimed, “when the mine was in operation, all the discharged water was channelled into the pond”. To this day, the contaminated waste still makes its way into the groundwater. In 1992, the company accidentally spilled 1.5 million litres of contaminated water into the surrounding desert!
Due to the tough environmental laws soon implemented, many companies including Molycorp were forced to find a solution or pack up business. Option 2: China.
Largely thanks to the United States and European environmental regulations, China has become the global rare metal mining hub. Before China’s rare metal monopoly, the country was thirsty for economic progress and more than willing to slaughter the environment if need be.
Today, almost all western countries have allowed China to destroy its environment so we can receive the ‘green’ end results. Chinese mining operators overwork their staff in brutal and unhygienic conditions, extract deposits and dispose of the waste in local rivers, send the minerals to be refined and eventually assembled into an electric car. Within a few weeks, a new fleet of green technology arrives in the western world and contributes to our seemingly-sustainable society.
Mining companies around the globe have moved to China. By moving abroad, the Asian air has become dense with smoke whilst the western world remains pristine. Whilst no one wants this ecological and societal destruction in their backyard, ‘made in China’ means much of the world has been blindsided to the true cost of the electric future.
Mining will never truly be sustainable and nor will anything that requires metal truly be renewable. What is the solution then? If western countries like the United States and Australia can begin taking back portions of the industry, through ‘greener’ mining initiatives and reduced costs, then perhaps the damage could be less server. Huge destruction will be inevitable but with firmer ecological standards and broader mining regions, public health complications could be avoided and political conflicts won’t halt supply to other countries.
As mentioned, however, the damage is inevitable no matter what. Mining just isn’t sustainable, refining leaves a footprint wherever, and emissions produced in China, Belarus or Botswana still contribute to climate change. Prehaps electric vehicles simply don’t meet the new environmental goal.
Zero emissions might ultimately mean zero cars.