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Reinventing the Wheel - The Question of “Rare” Earths

By x356039 - June 26, 2013

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Rare earths often have the same effect on a conversation on renewable energy as a bucket of cold water to the face. With China's near-total monopoly on their production and refinement coupled with their necessity for producing green energy technology such as wind turbines many see rare earths as a question of trading Saudi oil barons for Chinese mining magnates. Others decry the environmental damage done by the mining and refinement processes, arguing the cost outweighs any benefit from green energy. In the eyes of many the issue of rare earths makes solar and wind power dead ends, effectively short-circuiting any green energy revolution. Such preconceptions are based on incomplete, inaccurate, and insufficient reporting on the real story behind rare earths.

Good Energy, Bad Energy

Friends of the Earth International, 2013 - copied according to Creative Commons License

The world’s current energy system – the way we produce, distribute and consume energy – is unsustainable, unjust and harms communities, workers, the environment and the climate. Friends of the Earth International's new report demonstrates why a just, sustainable, climate-safe energy system is more urgent than ever.

Key points

  • Our current energy system is unsustainable, unjust, and harming communities, workers, the environment and the climate.  This is fundamentally an issue of power: of corporate and elite power and interests outweighing the power of ordinary citizens and communities.
  • The destructive energy sources on which the world current relies are driving climate change and many social and environmental problems and conflicts, including land grabbing, pollution, deforestation and the destruction of ecosystems, human rights abuses, health problems and premature deaths, and unsafe, insecure jobs and the rupture and collapse of local economies.

Friends of the Earth International believes that it is possible to build a climate-safe, just and sustainable energy system which ensures the basic right to energy for everyone and respects the rights and different ways of life of communities around the world.  To get there we need to challenge corporate power and exert real democratic control over the energy decisions of our governments.

  • We urgently need to invest in locally-appropriate, climate-safe, affordable and low impact energy for all, and reduce energy dependence so that people don’t need much energy to meet their basic needs and live a good life.
  • We need to end new destructive energy projects and phase out existing destructive energy sources, all the while ensuring that the rights of affected communities and workers are respected and that their needs are provided for during the transition.
  • To make the transition happen we also need to tackle the trade and investment rules that prioritise corporations' needs over those of people and the environment.
  • Our vision is guided by an idea called energy sovereignty.  This is the right of people to have access to energy, and to choose sustainable energy sources and sustainable consumption patterns that will lead them towards sustainable societies.

PDF File

Labor’s Stake in Decentralized Energy: A Strategic Perspective

By Al Weinrub - Local Clean Energy Alliance, September 20, 2012

This paper sketches some of the implications of the world’s economic and climate crisis for the future of the international labor movement.

It contends that resolving this crisis requires a transition from the globalized capitalist economy based on fossil energy to local sustainable economic development made possible by decentralized renewable energy systems.

Furthermore, it posits that the labor movement, as the most organized expression of the working class around the world, can play a crucial role in this transition. Labor’s challenge is to represent the interests of the world’s working people in averting the economic and ecological collapse now underway and in developing the new economic models needed for our survival.

This is a new role for organized labor. It means breaking with old patterns. It means looking beyond labor’s traditional job-protection focus to join with other sectors within the 99% majority to actively participate in the creation of economic development models—based on decentralized renewable energy systems—that can help assure our survival.

Read the report (PDF).

Towards a Just and Sustainable Solar Energy Industry

Towards a Just and Sustainable Solar Energy Industry - A Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition White Paper, January 14, 2009.

Every hour, enough solar energy reaches the Earth to meet human energy needs for an entire year. Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is widely seen as a “win-win” solution that can harness this “free energy” to address global warming, reduce U.S. dependence on energy imports, create “green jobs,” and help revitalize the U.S. economy.

Solar energy will play an essential role in meeting these challenges, but as the solar PV sector expands, little attention is being paid to the potential environmental and health costs of that rapid expansion. The most widely used solar PV panels are based on materials and processes from the microelectronics industry and have the potential to create a huge new wave of electronic waste (e-waste) at the end of their useful lives, which is estimated to be 20 to 25 years. New solar PV technologies are increasing cell efficiency and lowering costs, but many of these use extremely toxic materials or materials with unknown health and environmental risks (including new nanomaterials and processes).

With the solar PV sector still emerging, we have a limited window of opportunity to ensure that this extremely important industry is truly “clean and green,” from its supply chains through product manufacturing, use, and end-of-life disposal. The solar industry has taken a leadership role in addressing the world’s pressing energy and environmental challenges and will serve as a model for how other innovative “green” industries address the lifecycle impacts of their products.

In this white paper, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) provides an overview of the health and safety issues faced by the solar PV industry, including the toxic materials used in manufacturing and the potential end-of-life disposal hazards of solar PV products. The report also lays out recommendations to immediately address these problems to build a safe, sustainable, and just solar energy industry. These recommendations include:

  • Reduce and eventually eliminate the use of toxic materials and develop environmentally sustainable practices.
  • Ensure that solar PV manufacturers are responsible for the lifecycle impacts of their products through Extended
    Producer Responsibility (EPR).
  • Ensure proper testing of new and emerging materials and processes based on a precautionary approach.
  • Expand recycling technology and design products for easy recycling.
  • Promote high-quality “green jobs” that protect worker health and safety and provide a living wage throughout the
    global PV industry, including supply chains and end-of-life recycling.
  • Protect community health and safety throughout the global PV industry, including supply chains and recycling.

Read the report (PDF)

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