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How can sustainability standards transform the raw materials sector in a changing world

How can sustainability standards transform the raw materials sector in a changing world

Critical raw materials

The raw materials sector is at the forefront of global challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, as it plays a vital role in the energy, transport, and digital transitions required to mitigate and adapt to climate change. However, the sector also faces significant pressures from consumers, investors, and regulators, who demand higher sustainability and responsibility standards. The question arises: How can the raw materials sector cope with these demands and leverage them as opportunities for innovation and differentiation?  

This was the main question addressed by a workshop recently organized by UNECE at the International Roundtable on Materials Criticality (IRTC) 2024, held in Torino, Italy. The workshop, titled “Emerging Sustainability Standards: Challenges and Opportunities for Raw Materials in a Changing World,” brought together experts, practitioners, and stakeholders from various fields and sectors to discuss the latest developments and trends in sustainability standards and their implications for the raw materials sector.  

Role of UNFC and UNRMS in ensuring sustainability and integrated resource management  

UNECE has developed two important tools, the United Nations Framework Classification for Resources (UNFC) and the United Nations Resource Management System (UNRMS), to ensure sustainable and integrated resource management. UNFC is a system that unifies the classification and reporting of resources based on social, environmental, and economic viability, technical feasibility, and confidence in resource estimates. UNRMS is a voluntary global standard for sustainable resource management that supports the development of policies and regulations in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  

The UNRMS framework provide a comprehensive information and methodology to manage resources sustainably, guiding the sector through 12 fundamental principles. These include responsibility to the planet, social contract on natural resources, value addition, circularity, and transparency. The frameworks also promote measurement and reporting of environmental and social performance indicators, such as greenhouse gas emissions and community engagement.  

"Sustainability is not only a challenge, but also an opportunity for the raw materials sector, as it can help the sector improve its performance, reputation, and competitiveness, as well as contribute to the global sustainable development goals”, said Charlotte Griffiths, Chief of the Resources Management Section at UNECE. “UNECE is committed to supporting the sector in achieving sustainability and integrated resource management through its tools, such as UNFC and UNRMS, and its platforms, such as this workshop."  

For example, in Albania, these two pillars of sustainable resource management are contributing to making real impact in the country towards unlocking geothermal energy and developing a roadmap for its sustainable utilization.   

Developing universal sustainability standards for raw materials 

The raw materials sector faces growing demands and expectations from consumers, investors, regulators, and society regarding sustainability. To address these challenges and seize opportunities, the sector needs to adopt global standards that guide and benchmark its sustainability performance and impact. Global standards provide guidance, best practices, and benchmarks for sustainability. They enhance credibility and comparability of sustainability performance, ensure compliance and alignment with regulations and expectations, facilitate collaboration and communication, and address the diversity and complexity of the sector's specific needs and challenges. 

UNFC and UNRMS are tools that help ensure sustainability and integrated resource management by considering social, environmental, and economic factors, technical feasibility and confidence in resource estimates. International Standards Organization (ISO) intends to develop industry-applicable standards for various aspects of sustainability, providing guidance, best practices and benchmarks for the sustainable raw materials industry. “However, developing and implementing such standards also poses significant challenges, such as engaging and representing diverse stakeholders, harmonizing with existing standards and frameworks, and addressing the complexity and specificity of the raw materials sector,” said Michael Haschke, Chair Designate of ISO PC 348 Sustainable Raw Materials and member of the Expert Group on Resource Management. 

Specific standards and initiatives that are relevant for the raw materials sector  

There are various standards and initiatives relevant to the raw materials sector. Application of UNRMS for critical minerals exploration and a case study for lithium development in the UK are noteworthy. The OASIS Open Standards are designed to make applications interoperable, secure, and scalable. They can also support the integration of raw materials with other sectors such as energy, transport, and digital. Another initiative is the UNRMS concept of resource servitization, which aims to transform a commodity-centric business model into a service-centric one. This approach focuses on providing solutions rather than commodities and can help reduce the environmental and social impact of the raw materials sector, increase customer loyalty and create new revenue streams. The tin industry has its own sustainability perspective, challenges, and opportunities. It has taken initiatives and actions to improve its sustainability, such as the Tin Code.  

Insights and implications for the raw materials sector  

Sustainability standards are an opportunity and a challenge for the raw materials sector. Adopting them improves performance and reputation while contributing to sustainable development goals. These standards are dynamic, diverse, and interconnected, requiring alignment and collaboration. Further research, dialogue, and action are essential, and UNECE plays a crucial role in facilitating this process.