Reports in The Times over the weekend that the UK is ramping up its efforts to secure alternative sources of rare-earth minerals to China has unexpectedly thrust today’s snap parliamentary election in Greenland into the global spotlight. The polls are widely accepted to be a referendum on a controversial mine that is not yet operational.
Located near Narsaq in the south of the island, the Kvanefjel large-scale project has the potential to become the most significant rare-earth minerals producer in the western world, but it has been dividing Greenland’s political system for more than a decade. With security agencies in the UK and elsewhere increasingly concerned that a scarcity of available natural resources could see Beijing’s use its current near monopoly as leverage in any future disputes, Greenlanders find themselves not only torn between the mine’s economic potential and its threat to the environment, but caught up in a geopolitical row as well.
The term rare-earth minerals refers to a group of 17 metals – including cerium, neodymium, terbium and erbium – that form under the earth’s surface and which are used as magnets for speakers and hard drives in the manufacture of mobile phones, televisions and computers. Paradoxically, given Greenland’s environmental concerns, they are also to be found in more than 90% of hybrid and electric vehicles and their braking systems, as well as in the batteries used by car manufacturers such as Tesla and Ford. They are, additionally, needed to produce wind turbines, solar panels, fibre-optic cables, missile guidance systems, ships and submarines and are frequently described as ‘industrial gold’.
In 2019, the value of global rare-earth minerals imports stood at just $1.15 billion compared to the trillion-dollar trade in hydrocarbons. While their worth as a commodity is relatively small, their added-value potential is huge. Each Apple iPhone, for example, relies on a combination of neodymium, europium and cerium; and although in 2019 China was estimated to account for more than 58% of production and 95% of rare-earths mineral production, the United States Geological Survey has calculated that Greenland has the world’s largest undeveloped deposits.
In the meantime, the race is on to ‘harvest’ rare-earth minerals from the ocean bed and the UK government is sponsoring a deep-sea mining project being carried out in the Pacific by UK Seabed Resources, a subsidiary of the American defence company Lockheed Martin’s British division. As part of the project, scientists are learning about the potential for harvesting tennis ball-sized mineral-rich nodules that can provide millions of tonnes of copper, nickel, cobalt and manganese as well, of course, as rare-earth minerals. Countries including China, South Korea, Belgium, Germany and France are involved in similar projects in the Pacific, as is Japan. In 2019, it was reported that researchers had found hundreds of years’ worth of rare-earth materials underneath Japanese waters — enough to supply the world on a “semi-infinite basis,” according to a study published in Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Reports.
Results of Greenland’s parliamentary election are expected tomorrow.