With the attention of the global community directed towards the results of the ongoing 26th COP UN Climate Change Conference, momentum for the green transition appears to be at its highest. Following up on a series of announcements made over the past decade—under the declared objective to keep global temperature rise within 1.5 degrees—political leaders at COP26 have already announced the pledge to end and reverse deforestation by 2030, cut greenhouse gas methane emissions by 2030 and shift away from coal.
The World Resources Forum Association is pleased to assist to this increased momentum and bring to the attention of the international community 5 main takeaway messages from the World Resources Forum 2021 Conference (WRF2021). WRF2021 took place on October 12-14, under the theme of “A Green Deal for Sustainable Resources”, in a hybrid format, with sessions taking place online, in Switzerland and in Ghana, which involved over 950 participants from 100+ countries.
After three days of plenary sessions, workshops and scientific sessions, these are the main points we urge to be addressed in the decisions being taken at COP26.
1. The extractive sector must move towards responsible mining
The road to a low-carbon future goes through the upscale of green technologies that notoriously require more minerals than their fossil fuel alternatives. As demand for mineral resources will inevitably go up, and such demand will need to be (at least partially) satisfied through extractive activities, it is of paramount importance to decrease the footprint of the extractive sector, whose operations are currently responsible for large social and environmental impacts. Metals mining, in fact, currently accounts for around 10% of greenhouse gas emissions, and between 2000 to 2015, the climate change and health impacts from extraction and production of metals approximately doubled.
- The extractive industry needs to move towards responsible mining practices, which take into account fair distribution of value, human health and environmental protection. The concept of “responsible mining” should be preferred over that of “green mining”, as it also encompasses economic development and social issues, including aspects related to the health and safety of mining workers and communities living nearby mining sites.
- In order to decrease their impact, mining companies can and should be front-runners in the uptake of the circular economy. Actors in the industry should not see circularity as a risk, but rather as an opportunity for generating economic value decoupled from environmental impact.
- Governments must get more involved in this topic and reflect on how the process towards responsible mining can be supported through national regulations, global agreements and a continuous monitoring and evaluation. A combined leadership in industry and policy is required in a framework of shared responsibility.
- Responsible and inclusive governance must encompass shared value creation, broad and effective stakeholder engagement—particularly women, indigenous and tribal people and local communities—and the protection of environmental defenders.
As WRFA President Bruno Oberle stated in his concluding remarks “the synthesis is that there is no alternative other than responsible mining – all the actors need to join forces to develop in depth in that direction”
2. The upscale of secondary markets and circular economy is vital to provide the resources necessary for a sustainable transition
Over the past years, we have assisted to the continuous rise of waste, with some waste streams growing faster than others. This is the case of e-waste, whose amount is projected to double by 2030. In a global context where the amount of waste generated and the demand for raw materials increase simultaneously, recovering valuable resources out of waste represents a unique opportunity to foster resource security and reduce the demand for virgin raw materials.
- The markets for secondary resources can deliver tangible commercial and environmental gains, which largely remain untapped today, through improved product design, extended asset life, reuse, remanufacturing and recycling.
- It must be ensured that human health and environmental protection are at the core of resource recovery systems and processes. Otherwise, unreliable and uncontrolled waste management will continue to pose threats to the environment and to workers, both formal and informal, involved in recycling operations.
- Setting the correct framework conditions with legislation, financing and standards is vital to scale the size of secondary markets and provide the industry with a level playing field. This is particularly urgent to foster the recycling of critical raw materials for which recycling practices are not yet well established.
- Useful tools and concepts, such as Extended Producer Responsibility schemes and the Basel Convention, need to further evolve in order to better support a transition towards a circular economy. This points to the need to overcome the current barriers created by a fragmented implementation and enforcement of conventions and requirements. The merits and potential of a global EPR scheme should be explored and discussed in an international setting.
3. The financial and trading sectors have a central role to play in fostering sustainability in mineral value chains
Actors and institutions involved in the trading of metal & mineral commodities and financial assets play a key role in shaping international commodity markets, which in turn support economic growth in resource-rich countries and facilitate the delivery of raw materials to the global economy. There are increasing calls for commodity related financial transaction and trading actors and institutions, to demonstrate transparency in their operations and evidence their sustainability credentials. Despite recent efforts in developing and promoting monitoring and reporting practices to address the issue, considerable challenges remain with their operationalization, harmonization and credibility.
- Good-quality data availability and harmonization are critical for increasing transparency. Financial and trading actors are therefore called to collaborate with the whole supply chain on solutions for the creation of reliable and comparable data to ensure transparency and evidence the sustainability performance of their operations.
- Financial and trading actors are called to introduce the risk of the unsustainable use of natural resources, causing climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution into their financial decisions.
- The true socio-economic cost of extraction of mineral resources should be reflected in the commodity prices, which can be achieved through a better and more coordinated governance of mineral resources.
- Green finance can be a powerful driver towards a more sustainable extractive sector, motivating companies to be rewarded for their disclosed ESG performance. In order to be so, however, existing frameworks and initiatives for green finance and ESG investing need to be better coordinated and integrated, providing a harmonized and consistent context for investment decisions.
- The widespread adoption of digital technologies has the potential to improve access to data and to track performance, in order to improve trust, transparency and traceability in commodity trading and finance.
4. A collaborative and systemic mindset is required to ensure that the transition from linear to circular economies is fair and equitable on a global scale
As a growing number of countries state their ambitions to move towards a circular economy, policies and initiatives that take place domestically have far-reaching consequences in a highly integrated world economy, affecting environmental, social and economic outcomes around the world. Currently, very little is known on how domestic policies affect global value chains, resulting in a knowledge gap reflected in current circular economy policy design. Systematically analysing consequences and designing policies to counteract possible negative effects sits at the core of a just and fair global circular economy transition.
- OECD centric circular economy concepts have so far not put enough attention on analysing the effects of domestic circular economy policies on third countries, not allowing these considerations to become part of national and regional policy design. Increased knowledge on the topic should be reflected into a more coordinated and collaborative policy approach to ensure a just transition for all the actors involved.
- More efforts should be directed to understand the systematic effects of domestic circular economy policies in high-income countries on middle and low-income countries. This involves a detailed analysis of changes in trade agreements and how they affect resource-rich countries with a high share of income generated by extractive activities.
- The social and human dimension of the circular economy transition need to be better built into circular economy policies to ensure positive socio-economic outcomes.
- SMEs, with their wealth of innovations and solutions, will play a key role in the transformation of global supply chains towards circularity. As such, they should be provided with all the tools, resources and capacity necessary to scale their innovative solutions and enter local and global supply chains.
Based on the 4 main takeaways developed above, here is one final overarching takeaway message from WRF2021:
5. A sustainable and fair transition towards a low-carbon future inevitably relies on meeting the resource requirements for the transition in a way that ensures positive social, economic and environmental outcomes.
As countries design their transition from a fossil fuel to a mineral-based economy, the increased demand for raw materials – especially minerals and metals – runs the risk of posing an excessive burden on people and planet. As clearly stated by UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen in her keynote speech at WRF2021, “we need to understand that even renewable is not without a footprint”.
Alongside the current footprint of the mining sector, other concerns relate to the effects of the transition on middle- and low-income countries whose economies are currently powered by extractive activities. Resource extraction, in fact, plays a dominant role in the economies of 81 countries, which account for a quarter of global GDP and half of the world population, and nearly 70% of those living in extreme poverty.
Therefore, we call political and industry leaders to avoid a tunnel vision solely focused on CO2 emissions and include in the policy decision-making process all the multi-faceted implications related to resource management and use at the core of such a large-scale transition. Establishing equitable and effective processes for harnessing resources, in fact, is necessary to ensure that the transition can deliver long-lasting environmental, economic and social benefits.
This calls for an unprecedented level of international collaboration on a series of interrelated areas, such as mineral resource governance, trade agreements, finance, industry regulations – all of which are necessary in order to facilitate the transition towards sustainable models of production and consumption. The management of natural resources will be a decisive force to shape the outcomes of the green transition, and only an efficient, responsible and fair approach will be able to support the wellbeing of people, the resilience of natural ecosystems and future economic prosperity.
About WRF2021: a multi-stakeholder dialogue putting resources at the core of the global green transition
Co-hosted by the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) and the Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation of the Republic of Ghana, WRF2021 focused on the pivotal role that the governance, management and use of natural resources have to play for a sustainable and fair transition towards low-carbon and resilient economies. Based on a holistic approach that evaluates the impacts of resource use along the entire value chain, WRF2021 provided a space for policy-makers, industry, scientists and civil society to come together and discuss how a Green Deal can:
- Ensure fair resource extraction for a prosperous future (Primary Resources)
- Transform waste into resources for development (Secondary Resources)
- Design circular systems for resources (Circular Economy)