Rare earths consist of 17 heavy metals used for a wide range of commercial and industrial purposes. Due to the increased use of electric vehicles and the growth of renewable energy, the demand for rare earths is expected to rise significantly. Notably, “[t]he majority of the world’s supply […] is mined in China, which controls roughly 60% of the world’s mining production and 85% of the processing of the metals”.
🌱 What is the significance of the Swedish deposit for Europe?
As rare earths are not currently mined in Europe, there is a strong dependency on imports. It is estimated that the EU currently imports 98-99% of its rare earth elements from China. The discovery in Sweden is hoped to “pave the way for rare earth elements to start being mined in Europe”. Mining rare earths “closer to home” has been a core goal of Europe for a while now, as “[t]he EU expects [its] demand to increase fivefold by 2030”. The discovery could optimally contribute to solving Europe’s “supply problem” and assuring “self-sufficiency and independence from Russia and China”.
🌱 Did the discovery in Sweden come by surprise?
The deposit – which has been named “Per Geijer” – is located close to the city of Kiruna, in the Swedish part of the Arctic Circle. The Swedish state-owned mining company, LKAB has been conducting explorations in the area for several years. The area “has been known to be rich in rare earth minerals for several decades” and LKAB has run the largest iron ore mine in Europe there for years. Therefore, the deposit did not come as a total surprise. Yet, the large size of the deposit – of more than a million tonnes of rare earth minerals – was not anticipated. The discovery is currently assumed to be “the largest known deposit of rare earth elements” in Europe. While the 1 million tonne of rare earths may seem significant, it only forms a small portion of the world's total estimated reserves of 120 million tonnes.
🌱 What happens next?
The deposit in Sweden needs to be investigated further to determine its quality and size, and to establish the best means of mining it. This investigation could take several years. Moreover, while the mining company, LKAB plans to apply for the exploitation this year, the permitting processes and approval for new mines is lengthy. Due to risks to biodiversity and water resources in and around the area, a careful environmental impact assessment is required. This is particularly relevant considering the reports last year that some locals and campaigners “were concerned about the potential impact” of mining in the area. Additionally, the process may be slowed down as “Europe currently [still] lacks full-scale capacity to process rare earth[s]”. LKAB has therefore said it could take 10 to 15 years before the rare earths make it onto the market.
🌱 Will the rare earths be used for the green transition?
The types of rare earths discovered in Sweden are also used in military-industrial applications and many polluting industries, such as petroleum refining. As there is no policy framework in the EU or elsewhere to assure that rare earths are only used for renewable energy technologies or by other climate-friendly sectors, it is not a given that the rare earths discovered will be used exclusively for the green transition. Notably, the European Commission is currently working to eliminate some of the barriers to critical raw material mining and production to accelerate the green transition. Here, it may be worthwhile to consider the idea of coupling accelerated mining permit processes with conditions that limit the output material from going to non-green sectors.
Read more about the Swedish rare earths deposit here: