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We need robust management and traceability for the sustainable and circular use of climate-critical raw materials


Minerals such as lithium, cobalt, and copper are essential for digitalization, for renewable energy technologies, and for the further deployment of electric vehicles. Demand for these and other minerals – known as “critical raw materials” (CRMs) – is growing fast as governments and businesses act to reach net-zero emissions and meet the goals of the Glasgow Climate Pact.

Securing a resilient, sustainable and ethical supply of these materials for the transition to a net-zero economy is high on the agenda in our region, as evidenced by our post-COP26 briefing with the UK Mission here in Geneva. It is imperative that the technical and policy solutions to the climate crisis do not create new problems. CRMs constitute critical public goods that must be produced, used and reused without jeopardizing our shared future.

CRMs occupied a niche in the past as they were used only in very specialized technologies. Today, however, CRMs are becoming the “new oil.” Current trends suggest consumption of CRMs will double by 2060. Demand for some materials needed for batteries and other low carbon technologies will be several orders of magnitude higher. We need to anticipate how production and use of these materials will impact societies and the environment, and there is a need for rigorous analytical tools. Fortunately, we have a strong basis for this vital work.

UNECE has been involved in resource management since its inception and has assimilated a wealth of information on effective approaches. UNECE tools such as the existing United Nations Framework Classification for Resources (UNFC) and the United Nations Resource Management System (UNRMS) under development have at their core the sustainable development triad of society, environment, and economy. These tools help countries address complex issues such as meeting the demand for CRMs without putting undue pressure on the environment.

The specific conditions and processes involved in the production and use of CRMs also require special attention. Since these materials are usually found in low concentrations and are associated with other elements, large-scale mining and robust chemical processing are required. The recovery of low-grade materials involves a lot of energy. Many co- and by-products will be associated with these deposits, some of which could be radioactive or have other harmful environmental impacts.

Because of their unique distribution in nature and the specialized production technologies for recovering them, strong Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) standards are needed to ensure both robust sustainability and supply security.

Instead of the “use and discard” commodity model, CRM extraction and use should embrace circularity by design. Full transparency and traceability along the value chain can relegate unsustainable practices to the past. The full potential of trade policy can be leveraged to support these efforts with stringent climate and sustainability goals and commensurate legal frameworks.

UNECE has been at the forefront of developing traceability mechanisms that track materials along supply chains, including ensuring adherence to ESG standards. Building on UNECE’s sector-specific expertise on transparency and traceability of supply chains, including in the garment and footwear sector, our newly established Team of Specialists on ESG Traceability in Sustainable Supply Chains for the Circular Economy is developing standards and tools for use across a range of sectors, including minerals.

Based on its substantive experience and normative processes and tools, UNECE proposes action on a framework for resource industries that would include:

(a)          Social Contract: a comprehensive Socio-Environmental-Economic Contract to Operate that integrates consideration of impacts on societies and communities, the need for a just transition, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and environmental stewardship;

(b)          Sustainable Finance Framework: Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG)-focused funding based on common sustainable finance principles and taxonomy;

(c)           Sustainable Resource Management System: A shared, principles-based, Integrated, Sustainable Resource Management System;

(d)          Supply Chain Traceability: A comprehensive framework for traceability, transparency, and sustainability in extractives related supply chains;

(e)          Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs): SEAs of plans and programmes to mitigate possible negative impacts and to weigh environmental and health impacts of alternatives, including, as required, in a transboundary context, identify more sustainable solutions, and engage authorities and the public.

This action plan is embedded in the UN Secretary-General’s Policy Brief on “Transforming the extractive industries for sustainable development”.

Together with governments and all stakeholders, I look forward to pushing forward the international cooperation needed to fully operationalize this vision. As a next step, I encourage you to join UNECE’s Resource Management Week on 25-29 April.  This will include a high-level launch on 27 April of the UN Working Group on Extractive Industries that is being established to lead international efforts to transform extractive industries into an engine for sustainable development.

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