Calling a spade a spade amid the ‘green’ scramble for minerals

A general view of artisanal miners working at the Shabara artisanal mine near Kolwezi, 12 October 2022. - Some 20,000 people work at Shabara, in shifts of 5,000 at a time. (Keystone/AFP/ Junior Kannah)

Ahead of a key UN environment gathering in Geneva later this week and the upcoming Cop28 climate conference, policymakers, researchers, industry and civil society representatives are meeting in Geneva to accelerate measures to address the dirty impact of the green economy.

Calls to decolonise climate policy and humanise the green energy transition were heard at the opening of the World Resources Forum on Monday as speakers at the gathering discussed how climate talks often ignored the environmental and social impact of minerals and metals extraction and what needs to change.

Bruno Oberle, the head of the Swiss-based organisation that convened the meeting and former director general of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, opened the meeting by saying that global consumption of the Earth’s resources, including food, timber, fossil fuels, metals and other minerals, has tripled over the past 30 years to an estimated 100 gigatonnes. As the global population is expected to grow, demand for the resources is expected to double over the next 40 to 50 years.

The gathering comes right ahead of the Global Intergovernmental Meeting on Minerals and Metals at the end of the week and less than three months ahead of the start of the controversial hosting of the Cop28 climate summit in Dubai that will involve a review of global efforts to address climate change.

Citing the steep economic growth in China in recent years, Oberle said the country had consumed as much cement between 2015 and 2018 as the United States used over the past century. “This is logical as it was in a phase of building its infrastructure that a modern country needs, and this requires natural resources. India will be going through the same phase and Africa too.”

But he said technological advances to address the strain on resources have not kept up, particularly as production shifts from more industrialised countries to middle income countries, using older technologies. Citing data from the International Resource Panel, a UN-led scientific group of experts, he said that the extraction and first stage of refining of natural resources generates 80 per cent of biodiversity losses and 50 per cent of climate-change impacting greenhouse gas emissions.

“If we don’t change the productivity of natural resources and if we do not resolve (these) two biggest problems that we have today, the planet will not escape,” he told attendees at the meeting, which included government and international policy makers, academics, industry and civil society representatives.

“We need a transformation of production and consumption patterns, with a global agreement on the direction in which they move,” he added. “We need a level playing field for everyone, to convince firms and states to go in the right direction.” All stakeholders needed to be involved in discussions about finding fair and differentiated solutions, he stressed.

Forfeiting them for us

Siddharth Kara, author of Cobalt Red, an investigation into the cobalt supply chain, at the World Resources Forum, Geneva, 4 September 2023. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

Siddharth Kara, a professor at the University of Nottingham and expert on slavery and child labour, said that firms at the top of the multitrillion dollar business responsible for leading the transition away from a fossil fuel-economy are now responsible for “subhuman” conditions at the bottom of the supply chain where minerals such as cobalt, used to produce batteries for electric vehicles and mobile phones, are sourced.

Multinational companies buying the minerals claim they only source cobalt from large-scale industrial mines.

The author of Cobalt Red*,* a book that investigated cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said that thousands of artisanal miners, including young children, dig for the mineral in areas around Kolwesi, where industrial-scale mines are also located, selling their finds at bargain rates set by middlemen, who resell them to global firms.

Read more: You dig? Countries to discuss how to make mining sustainable

Kara explained that the work exposes miners to toxic substances on the ground and in the air. Some dig flimsy tunnels to access purer grades of the mineral that could collapse at any time, burying them alive.

Roughly three quarters of the world’s supply of cobalt is mined in the southeastern region of the DRC.

As a new automobile revolution takes hold where petrol-powered cars are making way for electric vehicles, Kara told the audience, “we have charged forward so fast in trying to achieve climate sustainability goals that no one has stopped, in particular the stakeholders at the top of the supply chain, to see who we are trampling on along the way.”

“If we are to pursue climate sustainability goals, in particular with this transition to electric vehicles in order that our children or grandchildren can have a cleaner, more sustainable planet, is it reasonable to forfeit their children for ours?”, he asked.

Same old transport and calls for sufficiency

Yamina Saheb, a lead author at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that earlier this year completed its latest reporting cycle on the state of the climate, said that unlike the popular narrative saying that the rise in use of electric vehicles and solar panels signals positive action against climate change, new technologies are simply displacing emissions.

“When we look at emissions from technologies considered as clean today per sector, such as in the transport sector, we do not look at emissions needed to produce the electric vehicles,” she said. Citing data from the International Energy Agency, she said that the overall emissions from transport have not decreased, but instead have remained stable with a trend towards increasing.

At fault has been the assumption, supported by the automobile industry and governments, that people require individual cars to meet their needs, she added. “We don’t need cars. We have mobility needs, and those mobility needs have been met for more than 70 years with individual cars.”

Saheb said governments need to rethink consumption patterns – including the wide gap between industrialised and developing countries – and embrace the concept of sufficiency, that would avoid unnecessary demand for energy resources, land and water.

Current emissions-cutting pledges by governments are projected to contribute to a rise of global temperatures of nearly 3°C compared to pre-industrial levels. Meanwhile, according to a recent report by the International Monetary Fund, $7 trillion, or 7.1 per cent of global gross domestic product, were spent by governments in 2022 on subsiding fossil fuels.  Saheb compared that amount to the $600 billion currently being spent annually on climate mitigation. “Seven trillion to kill the planet, but we don’t have the money to save humanity from itself.”

“Sufficiency is about all natural resources. It is about putting in place policies to protect the majority. Right now policies are to protect a small global minority, and this is what is wrong.”

By building safe bike lanes, more people will be likely to cycle rather than drive, normalising a mode of transport to the point that driving may be shamed by the majority.

More widely, Saheb said, “as humanity, we all have the right to enjoy life on this planet, no matter where you are. To achieve that, you need to decolonise climate policies and neo-colonialist policies, where climate scenarios have neo-colonialist scenarios,” This means where clean technologies do not protect developed and developing countries in the same way.

Making talks inclusive

Resources dial at the World Resource Forum showing metals and minerals traded in Switzerland. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

The European Union’s Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA), legislation proposing to secure the region’s self-reliance in mining, processing and recycling metals and minerals for its energy transition, aims at implementing good practices in the sourcing of the materials.

For some participants at a panel focussing on the CRMA, the act sends a signal to markets that environmental, social and governance concerns need to be considered throughout supply chains, though their concerns prevail regarding its implementation by all industry players.

Zenzi Awases, president of the Women in Mining Association Namibia, said that within discussions and policies regarding resource sourcing, Africa’s voice needed to be heard. Describing a recent trip to Senegal to discuss the EU’s act, she told Geneva Solutions that, “the first reaction asked was ‘Critical to whom? Why would they want to come and change the way we’re doing things?  Have they had a look at what we are doing?’”

“A very key thing to remember is that Africa no longer wants to be export-based. I am not sure that it is well addressed in the act. We want development,” Awases said, pointing out that Africa was only benefitting marginally from the extraction of the minerals but that it had the ability to process them.

While each resource-rich country is different in terms of its capabilities and demands from mining activities, she said they were all united on one common point: “Africa cannot be sold anymore. We are a whole lot more enlightened. We are ready to talk.”

The process of changing the way the western companies do business in Africa, Latin America or elsewhere in sourcing minerals is expected to involve more rigorous auditing on the ground, which takes time, as Michael Haeschke, director of innovation at DMT Group, a engineering and consultancy group that works with mining firms, said.

Akash Mokhriwale, social responsibility manager at trading giant Trafigura, said that the company has been “increasingly getting questionnaires from customers” regarding sourcing. The firm has been financing one of the largest copper and cobalt mines and a processing plant in DRC.

He said, however, that the process of auditing suppliers faced resistance. “If we start just sharing all these questionnaires to the supplier, they would stop mining.”

Lorena del Pilar Muñoz del Campo, sustainable finance specialist at the Universidad Viña del Mar in Chile, said such questionnaires needed to be developed with stakeholders in the mining countries, as the end result may have real impacts on the ground, environmentally and socially, and with regard to finance. “You have to understand the difference between dark green, light green and pale green” in the reports. ”We need to talk between us to deliver the right type of information.”