Since the world started to transition to electrification, the demand for critical raw materials such as rare earth minerals has increased, as they’re important to create renewable energy like solar panels, wind turbines and battery production.
However, due to the rising demand, geopolitical unrest affecting supply, and significant environmental and social impacts linked to critical raw materials (CRM) extraction and use, all five United Nations Regional Commissions, as well as international experts, have called for international synchronisation and urgent action at COP28 to ensure that massive CRM expansion doesn’t risk sustainable development.
Tatiana Molcean, UNECE Executive Secretary emphasised: “Delivering the decarbonisation needed for the Paris Agreement depends on huge quantities of the CRM. Therefore, leaders and industry are responsible for ensuring their extraction and use are as sustainable as possible. The good news is that we do not need to reinvent the wheel: the UN Framework Classification for Resources and UN Resource Management System provide tools to do just that, together with UN treaties to ensure that environmental and human rights issues are fully taken into account.”
Rising demand in the face of sustainability:
The demand for Lithium will surge by approximately 90 percent in 20 years.
Nickel and cobalt are expected to rise by 60-70 percent.
Copper and other rare earth minerals are set to increase by 40 percent in demand.
Furthermore, the demand for these materials is expected to triple by 2030, according to the IEA net-zero emissions.
COP28 side event talks also emphasised that these minerals are of economic importance, as they contribute to the economy of 81 countries that account for 25 percent of global Gross domestic product (GDP), 50 percent of the world’s population and almost 70 percent of those living in extreme poverty.
However, currently, the use of these limited resources is far from sustainable.
By 2060, it is expected that the world’s material footprint—which is currently at 100bln tons annually—will have doubled.
Over 90 percent of biodiversity loss and water stress are caused by the extraction and processing of materials, fuels, and food.
These activities also account for half of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
Therefore, the high-level talks highlighted the need for extreme efforts in the field to ensure that the inclusive transition will respect human rights and the well-being of all workers in the extractive industry, indigenous communities, and environmental defenders.
The discussions further emphasised that a circular economy, effective governance, diversity, innovation, finance and investment, and transparency are essential to ensure a sustainable supply of CRMs for the low-carbon energy transition, according to the work of the UN Working Group on Transforming the Extractive Industries for Sustainable Development.
The UNDP, UNEP, and UN Regional Commissions co-chair the Working Group, which coordinates work on extractives throughout the UN and beyond.
It also acts as a knowledge and information hub for scaling up and replicating best practices, offers technical assistance and policy recommendations, and helps integrate the work of the extractive industries into other UN-wide initiatives, such as those on financing for development.
UN resource tool provides necessary guidelines towards sustainable development:
The UNFC, which was created at UNECE, was emphasised in the talks as a common language and standard for categorising, managing, and reporting all raw material, energy, and mineral resources, including CRM. It can be used for any project involving raw materials
It can also be applied to projects involving renewable energy sources (like wind, solar, geothermal, and bioenergy), which enable comparisons between resources and nations.
It is noteworthy that the global use of UNFCs is rising quickly. The EU Critical Raw Materials Act specifies the use of UNFC, which has been used by the European Commission to integrate data on critical raw materials, including battery raw materials.
The UNFC-based African Minerals and Energy Classification and Management System is required to be used by the African Union, and an increasing number of nations use the UNFC for national resource management and resource projects.
The Policy Brief from the UN Secretary-General urges the extractive industries to coordinate their sustainable resource management initiatives with the UNFC.
Per the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement, the United Nations Resource Management System (UNRMS), which is based on the UNFC, provides guidelines that aim to balance economic development, environmental sustainability, and social responsibility.
Furthermore, The United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) recognised the potential of UNRMS to assist nations and businesses in sustaining their natural resources, and this endorsement creates opportunities for UNRMS to be applied globally.
Additionally, more sustainable routes for CRM development are being facilitated by UNECE cooperation on the traceability of CRM and associated Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) standards.
The importance of legislation for both the environment and human rights:
To address social and environmental issues related to CRM expansion and other resource-related activities, countries can make use of UN Multilateral Environmental Agreements.
The EU and the majority of other European nations are parties to UNECE treaties and are obligated to support effective measures in these areas.
The Aarhus Convention, for example, makes it easier for the public to participate in decision-making, obtain information, and seek justice in environmental matters—including mining operations.
To safeguard environmental defenders, who are increasingly in danger in many nations due to mining and resource projects, the Convention established a rapid response mechanism in the form of a Special Rapporteur.
Furthermore, The Espoo Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context assists in preventing environmental damage from mining exploitation across national borders.
Its Protocol on Strategic Environmental Assessment encourages the early incorporation of environmental and health concerns into national resource plans and programmes.
Moreover, The Industrial Accidents Convention also assists nations in lowering the risks connected to increased mining and the storage of mining waste, or “tailings,” including for the extraction of CRM.
Finally, the importance of the UNECE Safety Guidelines and Good Practices on Tailings Management Facilities, as well as other instruments created under the Convention, for all UN Member States and operators, was highlighted during international consultations held in response to the UN Environment Assembly resolution on the environmental aspects of managing minerals and metals.