The IEA critical minerals summit must plot path to fairer mining

Artisanal miners work at the Tilwezembe, a former industrial copper-cobalt mine, outside of Kolwezi, the capital city of Lualaba Province in the south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, June 11, 2016

Artisanal miners work at the Tilwezembe, a former industrial copper-cobalt mine, outside of Kolwezi, the capital city of Lualaba Province in the south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, June 11, 2016. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe

The International Energy Agency’s meeting needs to move towards better deals for countries and local communities where lithium, cobalt and other transition minerals are produced

Suneeta Kaimal is president and CEO of the Natural Resource Governance Institute.

This week in Paris, the International Energy Agency (IEA) will host its first-ever Critical Minerals and Clean Energy Summit. In the packed calendar of climate confabs, from Nairobi to New York, what opportunity will the summit provide to craft a more just and sustainable future?

As climate action and energy security top many countries’ priority lists, there is consensus that we must scale up the use of solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles and the like. Doing so requires a rapid, stable and sustainable increase in the supply of minerals including lithium, cobalt and nickel – with demand set to grow by up to three and a half times current levels by 2030.

New technologies and smart policies that bring down overall demand for raw minerals can help ease this pressure, but the IEA still predicts that a significant increase in new mineral production will be needed to support electrification.

An artisanal miner carries raw ore at Tilwizembe, a former industrial copper-cobalt mine, outside of Kolwezi, the capital city of Lualaba Province in the south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, June 11, 2016
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Yet officials and activists across mineral-rich African, Latin American and Asian countries know well the mining industry’s inglorious record of corruption, human rights abuses and pollution.

They are rightly asking: “what will be different this time?”

Not in the room

The IEA summit is an opportunity for policy makers and company executives from the Global North to answer this question, and they will be well represented. The governments of lower- and middle-income mineral producers, however, will be less visible. And civil society and Indigenous delegates, who have the most to lose in the race to transition, will be largely absent.

If the IEA is to achieve its aim to “promote a secure and sustainable supply of critical minerals,” summit delegates must respond to the needs of those not in the room. Failing to do so will only serve to embed disruption and delay in mineral supply chains, derail global climate action, and deepen social and economic inequities that the mining sector has perpetuated.

First, citizens of mineral-producing countries need a fair and equitable share of the benefits from mining. This includes better upskilling, more job creation, and policies that diversify economies, address energy poverty, and boost producing countries’ own decarbonization efforts. The status quo, in which elites and foreign companies capture an undue share of revenues, is not sustainable.

Mineral-rich countries seek not only to extract commodities, but to capture more value by further refining and processing them. They also aim to generate more renewable power but need money and technical expertise to do so. In negotiating international mining deals and partnerships, those at the Paris summit should commit concrete financial and technical support to helping producing countries to achieve these ambitions.

Second, citizens need strong legal frameworks whereby mining companies respect community rights, protect the environment, and uphold the rule of law throughout their activities. As currently drafted, flagship European Union raw materials legislation risks outsourcing the assessments of mining projects’ sustainability to voluntary, flawed certification schemes and standards.

The message from communities and civil society is clear: such voluntary standards are no replacement for hard rules. But where voluntary standards are used to help bring greater transparency to mining companies’ activities, these must be based upon rigorous multi-stakeholder governance and audit. Anything less, including self-regulation, opens the door to greenwashing and corruption.

Lastly, citizens need to know that authorities will enforce laws. This is a longstanding issue that has recently worsened. A major anticorruption case in the mining sector fell apart after a ten-year investigation in Britain, in part due to a lack of resources. IEA summit delegates must address these accountability failures if they are to inspire confidence among mining-affected communities that a just energy transition is possible.

If IEA member countries want to fully charge their renewable industries, they must plug in to these concerns. Inaction will be costly – for communities and for global climate ambitions.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


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