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Pathways for greening the supply of rare earth elements in China


Rare earths are essential to a wide array of different technologies, including clean technology. However, rare earths production has a large environmental footprint, warranting a greening of the industry. We quantify environmental impacts from rare earths production in China and project pathways towards sustainability of the industry to 2025 under different scenarios for development. We show that net environmental cost–benefits in 2015 were −US$14.8 billion (net cost). This cost would increase to −US$16 billion by 2025 under a reference scenario and fall to −US$6 billion by 2025 in the most environmentally friendly scenario. The single strategy that can reduce environmental impacts the most is to tackle illegal mining. Doing so would include increased regulatory enforcement and can yield significant eco-cost savings (US$5 billion). However, it may also tighten supply of rare earths and ignite market volatility, particularly in an uncertain global trade climate. A complementary strategy of relaxing restrictions on legal production can contribute to higher eco-cost savings while concurrently meeting global demand for rare earths.

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Fig. 1: Projected trends in annual REO production quantity in China.
Fig. 2: Aggregated environmental impacts for 19 development pathways for the rare earths industry compared with estimated sales revenue.
Fig. 3: Disaggregated eco-cost reductions in the scenario with the highest eco-cost savings (scenario 18).
Fig. 4: Contributions to eco-costs from each midpoint category.

Data availability

All data used to perform this study can be found in the Supplementary Datasheets. A discussion on methodology and assumptions are also available in the Supplementary Information. Any additional data that were used to support this study are available upon request from the authors.


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The authors are grateful for financial support from the National Natural Science Foundation for Outstanding Young Scholars of China (grant no. 71522011), National Basic Research Programme of China (grant no. 2010CB955903) and Commonwealth Programme on Environmental Protection (grant no. 200809062) of Ministry of Environmental Protection of China. Additional thanks go to J. Vogtländer and the rest of his team at TU Delft for their work on eco-cost and making it publicly available for other researchers and our team at Tsinghua University.

Author information




J.L. and W.Z. co-designed the study, contributed to data collection and drafted the paper. J.L. carried out technical analyses and compiled the supplementary information with input and feedback from W.Z.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Zongguo Wen.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figure 1, Supplementary Tables 1–10, Supplementary References 1–38

Supplementary Dataset

1 spreadsheet with 6 Supplementary datasheets

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Lee, J.C.K., Wen, Z. Pathways for greening the supply of rare earth elements in China. Nat Sustain 1, 598–605 (2018).

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