You dig? Countries to discuss how to make mining sustainable

A truck loads concentrated brine at SQM lithium mine at the Atacama salt flat, in Antofagasta region, Chile, 3 May 2023. (Keystone/Reuters/Ivan Alvarado)

The growing demand for valuable mineral and metal deposits tucked tightly away within the Earth’s crust is pushing governments to consider how to ensure extraction is done sustainably.

Countries will huddle in Geneva this week to try and figure out how to continue to dig up minerals and metals, some of which are crucial for the green transition, without wrecking the environment in the process. 

The consultations, which will take place on 7 and 8 September, are expected to come up with a list of “non-prescriptive” proposals to make mining more sustainable. Environment ministers will discuss these at the UN Environment Assembly next year in Nairobi and decide which ones to adopt.

Talks will be held right after the World Resources Forum, a conference for policy-makers, researchers and industry to meet up and discuss the challenges of global resource use.

Why it matters

As countries seek to reduce their carbon emissions and stave off the worst climate impacts, the race to develop green technologies is speeding up. The share of electric cars in the market has tripled over the last three years from just four to 14 per cent in 2022. Wind and solar made up a record 12 per cent of the global energy mix last year.

But many of the production models for these technologies and the needed infrastructure are looking a lot like their dirty predecessors. Massive-scale extraction of critical metals like lithium, cobalt, copper, nickel, manganese and graphite needed to produce batteries, solar panels or wind turbines are energy intensive, and they come with serious pollution risks for surrounding ecosystems and nearby communities.

The working conditions in these rapidly expanding sectors are not much of an improvement either. And when products get damaged or run their course,  disposing of them and recycling the materials also leads to a whole set of risks. Toxic substances can leach into the water and soil, for example.

What’s on the agenda

So far, some 50 proposals that emerged from earlier regional consultations are on the table and will be discussed over the two-day event. However, interests vary from region to region. Mineral-rich countries in the south bear the impact of intensive extraction, while wealthy countries in the North are dependent on these resources for products and infrastructure.

“We may not have a lot of minerals, but we are consumers, and as consumers, we are part of the value chain,” Martine Rohn-Brossard, deputy head of the International Affairs Division of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment,  who will be co-chairing the meeting, told a briefing ahead of the event.

But the arrival of a new technological market as countries seek to secure their own energy stability may redistribute those environmental implications as some of the critical metals and minerals are also available in Northern regions.

A truly green transition? Countries have recognised the need to set some standards to make sure that the production of clean technologies doesn’t just replace the climate catastrophe with an environmental one.

Inga Petersen, director of the Global Battery Alliance, an initiative birthed by the World Economic Forum that gathers industrial giants like Glencore and Trasfigura and international organisations like Unep, the OECD and the World Bank, said 348 new mines would be needed for critical metals to meet electric battery demand by 2035.

“The green energy transition is a fundamental transition of the entirety of modern life when it comes to how we organise our cities, our transport, our energy systems, global logistics,” she said. “Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions and no silver bullet to the climate crisis. Everything is a trade-off.”

Tailings problems. One of the major concerns from the proliferation of mines is tailings – left-over water, rock and traces of other materials after extracting the wanted mineral. 

Khadija Drame, deputy coordinator of the legal affairs unit of Senegal’s Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development, said that it was a priority for Africa, which needed more facilities to manage these residues as well as assistance to know what to do with mines that are no longer active or have been abandoned. 

Eastern European states suggested during consultations that an inventory of abandoned mine sites be created. 

Gabriela Encina Vera from Chile’s Ministry of Mining said Latin American states had expressed support to come up with environmental criteria for mine closure.

Keeping a close eye on sand. One of the main proposals that has gathered widespread support, especially from Africa and Latin America, is to create a global sand observatory. Sand, which is composed of minerals, is the second most used resource worldwide after water. When extracted, it causes a serious problems, such as erosion of shorelines, lakes and riverbeds, and lasting damage to natural habitats. It is a key ingredient of concrete and glass. 

“Our societies are literally built on sand,” said Pascal Peduzzi, director of UNEP GRID-Geneva, which has offered to harbour the observatory. The organisation has been working on tracking sand use and has produced a series of reports on the issue. 

On Wednesday, it will launch a global platform to track dredging and dumping of sand in marine areas.

At earlier discussions, European countries also brought up the need to work on a framework to regulate deep-sea mining of valuable raw materials in line with commitments made at the UN biodiversity summit and negotiations of a high seas treaty.

Relying on goodwill. For now, proposals are mostly skewed towards coming up with measures that countries can choose to follow, like developing guidelines, enhancing monitoring and exchanging good practices and knowledge.

Unlike the climate and the biodiversity crisis, environmental pollution has been slow to come under the spotlight. Countries just recently decided to set up an expert body for chemicals similar to the IPCC climate science panel, and negotiations for a treaty on plastics pollution are in their second year. 

One of the proposals that seems to rally groups is an assessment of the patchwork of the dozens of legal instruments that exist before creating new ones. Nevertheless, a need to set some rules in stone is on some people’s lips.

According to Encina Vera,  Latin American countries would favour exploring the idea of an international agreement on the environmental impacts of mining. Meanwhile, two African delegates said during consultations that an agreement on tailings should be considered.