“First of all, it is not news that rare earths elements are found in Sweden," Benjamin Sprecher responds. "And besides that, we can never produce those materials as cheaply here as China does. So as long as the price of raw materials is the determining factor, Europe will continue to depend on China for imports.”
That is a sobering message after the jubilant press conference on 12 January 2023. Swedish mining company LKAB announced that significant deposits of rare earth metals had been found near an operational iron ore mine in Kiruna, Lapland. Some of these metals are essential for producing magnets for electric car engines (1 to 2 kilograms per car) and for generators in wind turbines (10 tonnes per wind turbine). The press release spoke of more than a million tonnes of rare earth oxides and ‘the largest known reserve’ in Europe.
This framed the find as a cornerstone of Europe's renewable energy policy. At the announcement, Managing Director Jan Moström was flanked by the Swedish Minister for Energy, Business, and Industry, Ebba Busch. “The mine will start electrification and the EU’s self-sufficiency and independence from Russia and China. We need to strengthen industrial value chains in Europe and create real opportunities for the electrification of our societies. Politics must give industry the conditions to switch to green and fossil-free production. The Swedish mining industry has a lot to offer here.”
Is that claim correct?, Delta asked Benjamin Sprecher, who has a PhD in critical resources and is an expert in the field.
“I mainly thought what good marketing,” Industrial Ecologist (Faculty of Industrial Design) Dr Benjamin Sprecher responds. “That there are rare earth elements in Sweden has been known since the end of the 18th century. The town of Ytterby near Stockholm was the namesake for four of those elements: Yttrium, Ytterbium, Erbium and Terbium. And Holmium was named after the nearby capital of Stockholm. Through this presentation, which not entirely coincidentally coincides with Sweden's Presidency of the European Council, the LKAB mine connects itself with the geopolitics of industrial raw materials.”
The argument is that this find could reduce or end European dependence on China for these raw materials. Isn't that the case?
“That will only succeed if Europe, following the US Inflation Reduction Act, sets up a European raw materials policy to create a European market. As long as cost is the decisive factor, European industry will continue to import rare earths from China. The producers are state-owned companies that can keep the price down until the European production capacity is bankrupt. Then they’ll push the prices up again. We need to start understanding that paying higher prices for European raw materials is an insurance premium for the future. But a policy like this would require European unity, and that is nonexistent. The Netherlands is on the neoliberal side in Europe, which I now find rather naive. Other member states, such as Sweden and France, are more aware of the power politics behind commodity prices.”
What does this announcement mean for Europe?
"The announcement emphasises supply. But reducing demand is much more important. We need to consume less energy and place more value on materials. This is merely a matter of not being stupid and setting legal requirements for the repair of everything from refrigerators to MRI-machines to televisions and electric vehicles. France is leading the way in this, but European legislation is following in that direction."