Critical Raw Materials (CRM) like lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper, manganese, graphite and rare earth elements are crucial for renewable energy technologies like solar panels, wind turbines and for battery production, driving the global shift to electrification. Yet with surging demand, geopolitical uncertainties affecting supply, and significant environmental and social impacts linked to CRM extraction and use, all five United Nations Regional Commissions and international experts have called at COP28 for international coordination and urgent action to ensure that massive CRM expansion does not undermine sustainable development.
UNECE Executive Secretary Tatiana Molcean highlighted: “Delivering the decarbonization needed for the Paris Agreement depends on huge quantities of Critical Raw Materials. 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 brings sustainability challenges
Lithium demand is expected to surge by nearly 90% in 20 years. Nickel and cobalt should rise by 60-70% in demand. Copper and rare earth elements expect a 40% increase in demand. Under the IEA net-zero emissions scenario, demand for these critical materials will more than triple by 2030.
Discussions in the official COP28 side event highlighted that minerals are also of huge economic importance, playing a significant role in the economies of 81 countries that account for 25% of global GDP, 50% of the world’s population and nearly 70% of those living in extreme poverty.
However, the use of these finite resources is currently far from sustainable. The world’s material footprint, currently at approximately 100 billion tonnes annually, is projected to double by 2060. The extraction and processing of materials, fuels, and food contribute to half of total global greenhouse gas emissions and over 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress.
The high-level exchanges emphasized that concerted efforts will be required to ensure respect for human rights and well-being at the heart of a just and inclusive transition, including for workers in the extractive industry, indigenous communities, and environmental defenders.
Drawing on the work of the UN Working Group on Transforming the Extractive Industries for Sustainable Development, the discussions also stressed that ensuring a sustainable supply of CRMs for the low-carbon energy transition requires diversification, innovation, effective governance, transparency, financing and investment, and a circular economy. Co-chaired by UNDP, UNEP and the UN Regional Commissions, the Working Group coordinates extractives-related work across the UN and beyond; serves as an information and knowledge hub to scale up and replicate good practices; provides policy advice and technical assistance; and assists in integrating the extractive industries' work into other UN-wide initiatives, including on Financing for Development.
UN resource tools provide a common language
The discussions highlighted the United Nations Framework Classification for Resources (UNFC), developed at UNECE, as a common language and standard for classifying, managing, and reporting all energy, mineral and raw material resources, including CRM. It can be applied to all raw material projects: primary raw materials (e.g. mining) and secondary (e.g. recycled materials, supporting the circular economy), as well as renewable energy sources, including wind, solar, geothermal and bioenergy, allowing for comparisons across resources and countries.
UNFC use is rapidly increasing worldwide. The European Commission has used UNFC to integrate information on critical raw materials, including battery raw materials, and UNFC use is stipulated in the EU Critical Raw Materials Act. The African Union mandates the use of the UNFC-based African Minerals and Energy Classification and Management System, while a growing number of countries worldwide are using UNFC for resource projects and their national resource management.
The UN Secretary-General’s Policy Brief calls for extractive industries to align sustainable resource management efforts with UNFC.
Based on UNFC, the United Nations Resource Management System (UNRMS) offers a set of principles and requirements that guide the planning, design, operation and closure of resource extraction and processing activities to balance economic development, environmental sustainability and social responsibility in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement.
The endorsement of UNRMS earlier this year by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) opens opportunities for the global application of UNRMS, recognizing its potential to help countries and companies sustain natural resources. The UK and several other countries are already testing the application of UNRMS to enhance circularity in using CRMs and other resources.
Cooperation at UNECE on the traceability of CRM and related Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) standards is further contributing to more sustainable pathways for CRM development.
Legislation can help protect human rights and the environment
Countries can use UN Multilateral Environmental Agreements to help address social and environmental issues linked to CRM expansion and other resource activities. Parties to UNECE treaties – including the EU and most European countries – are bound by obligations supporting practical measures in these areas. For instance, the Aarhus Convention facilitates access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters, including mining activities. A rapid response mechanism in the form of a Special Rapporteur has been established under the Convention to protect environmental defenders, who are increasingly under threat in many countries around the world concerning mining and resource projects.
The Espoo Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context helps avoid environmental damage from extractive industry activities across national borders. Its Protocol on Strategic Environmental Assessment supports the integration of environmental and health considerations in countries’ resource plans and programmes at an early stage.
These treaties are open to accession by all UN Member States.
In addition, the Industrial Accidents Convention helps countries reduce risks associated with increased mining and mining waste (known as “tailings”) storage, including for CRM extraction. Global consultations under the United Nations Environment Assembly resolution on the environmental aspects of minerals and metals management underscored the value of UNECE Safety Guidelines and Good Practices on Tailings Management Facilities and other tools developed under the Convention for all UN Member States and operators.