China's imposed limits on the exports of its rare earth elements are against global trade rules, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled yesterday, providing a victory for Europe and the US who had argued that the practice was unfair.
“Today’s ruling by the WTO on rare earth shows that no one country can hoard its raw materials from the global market place at the expense of its other WTO partners,” said EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht.
The Chinese Ministry of Commerce said the country had imposed the limits to enhance the management of resource products which are high-polluting and high-energy consuming.
“This meets the requirement of protecting such resources that can be exhausted… and also contributes to the global sustainable development,” said an unidentified official with the ministry.
However, the WTO said the limits helped “secure preferential use” of the elements for domestic firms. In its ruling, the WTO said: “The overall effect of the foreign and domestic restrictions is to encourage domestic extraction and secure preferential use of those materials by Chinese manufacturers”.
“Accordingly, the panel concluded that China’s trading rights restrictions breach its WTO obligations.”
The Xinhuanet news website reported that China’s Ministry of Commerce reacted with regret at the ruling but said the ministry is evaluating the report and adopting measures in accordance with WTO dispute settlement protocols.
What are rare earth elements?
Rare earth elements (or rare earth minerals) are used in many applications including: mobile phones, speakers, telescopes, catalytic converters, x-ray machines and many other applications. According to the BBC, China accounts for more than 90% of rare earth global production.
According to Namibia Rare Earths, there are 17 elements found on the earth that are classified as rare earth elements (REE). The term ‘rare’ does not mean these elements are necessarily scarce, with the exception of the radioactive promethium, they are in fact relatively plentiful in the Earth’s crust, with cerium being the 25th most abundant element at 68 parts per million (similar to copper).
However, because of their geochemical properties, rare earth elements are typically dispersed and not often found concentrated as rare earth minerals in economically exploitable ore deposits. The term “rare earth” comes from their initial discovery in which only tiny portions of these minerals could be isolated from larger quantities of still more common elements.
|21||Scandium||Sc||Aerospace framework, high-intensity street lamps, high performance equipment|
|39||Yttrium||Y||TV sets, cancer treatment drugs, enhances strength of alloys|
|57||Lanthanum||La||Camera lenses, battery-electrodes, hydrogen storage|
|58||Cerium||Ce||Catalytic converters, colored glass, steel production|
|59||Praseodymium||Pr||Super-strong magnets, welding goggles, lasers|
|60||Neodymium||Nd||Extremely strong permanent magnets, microphones, electric motors of hybrid automobiles, laser|
|61||Promethium||Pm||Not usually found in Nature|
|62||Samarium||Sm||Cancer treatment, nuclear reactor control rods, X-ray lasers|
|63||Europium||Eu||Color TV screens, fluorescent glass, genetic screening tests|
|64||Gadolinium||Gd||Shielding in nuclear reactors, nuclear marine propulsion, increases durability of alloys|
|65||Terbium||Tb||TV sets, fuel cells, sonar systems|
|66||Dysprosium||Dy||Commercial lighting, hard disk devices, transducers|
|67||Holmium||Ho||Lasers, glass coloring, High-strength magnets|
|68||Erbium||Er||Glass colorant, signal amplification for fiber optic cables, metallurgical uses|
|69||Thulium||Tm||High efficiency lasers, portable x-ray machines, high temperature superconductor|
|70||Ytterbium||Yb||Improves stainless steel, lasers, ground monitoring devices|
|71||Lutetium||Lu||Refining petroleum, LED light bulbs, integrated circuit manufacturing|