Mining ‘sustainably’ for Critical Raw Materials, while demand rages on?

11 abril 2023

Mining ‘sustainably’ for Critical Raw Materials, while demand rages on?

The Commission’s new legislative proposal for sourcing Critical Raw Materials (CRM) protects supply more than it does people and forests. Facilitating a ‘goldrush’ on an expanded list of critical minerals without strict, binding protections in place would harm climate, forests and biodiversity, and aggravate human rights violations, within the European Union (EU) and beyond. 

Stung by disruptions in supply chains caused by the Covid-19 and Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the Commission intends to strengthen and diversify EU access to the ‘transition minerals’ needed to shift energy and digital systems away from fossil fuels, and diminish dependence on a few, major providers. This, against a backdrop of “unprecedented increase in demand” – a five-fold increase by 2030 for some minerals, and 17 times current demand for others (such as gallium, used in semi-conductors). Commission President Ursula von der Leyen asserts that “[i]t’s in our mutual interest to ramp up production in a sustainable manner”. 

The inherent contradiction between “ramping up production” and sustainability, however, is the CRM proposal’s blind spot. 

Mineral deposits frequently lie under or adjacent to forests and local communities, who bear the direct environmental and human rights devastation of mining. Tropical biomes are especially vulnerable, their streams spreading acids used as solvents in mining while their forests’ capacity to sequester carbon is destroyed. For instance, mining for nickel – now added to the CRM list – has since 2011 destroyed almost 550,000 hectares of rainforest on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, without authorisation to clear land and using forged documents, with considerable impact on local livelihoods.  

A pan-tropical study reviewed 11,467 square kilometres (km2) of industrial mining across 26 countries, which collectively comprised 7,019 km2 of tropical forest in 2000; by 2019, 3,264 km2 (46.5 per cent) of those forests were directly lost to industrial mining.  

Worse, the pan-tropical study found that by opening previously unattainable forests to in-migration, new settlements, agriculture and artisanal deforestation far beyond the mining lease, the indirect deforestation impacts of mining can be far greater than the original mining lease. Indirect deforestation is difficult to assess – for instance, no worldwide database captures artisanal mining, which shape-shifts much more rapidly than industrial mining – but one Amazonian site saw effects 70 km from the mining lease, with 12 times the deforestation impact of the lease itself. 

Problematically, the EU proposal fails to require social impact assessments – it only recommends conducting an environmental footprint study – or free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) for local and Indigenous communities. The Commission’s intention to help partner countries “develop their own extraction and processing capacities” cannot be considered positive in contexts that often disregard environmental and human rights protections, and feature an imbalance of power between industrialised countries and those whose economies depend on resource extraction. This also applies within the EU, as with the Sámi people, as much as outside the EU. 

Nor is it sufficient to set up a Board to assess applications for Strategic Partnerships, and discuss and monitor minerals exploration; the proposal lacks transparency and safeguards to mitigate the negative impacts of mining operations, and the Board should include a sub-group on social and environmental issues and the European Parliament. 

No mining can be “sustainable” when led by vast increases in demand, yet the proposal does not acknowledge that a cornerstone must also be to reduce consumption. Reduction is feasible: EU fossil gas use dropped by 19.3 per cent from August 2022 to January 2023, compared with the same months from 2017 to 2022. 

Fundamentally, this proposal undermines efforts to stop making Europeans complicit in deforestation, the raison d’être of the new EU Regulation on deforestation-free products (FW 281). It is counter intuitive to rein in deforestation for certain commodities, while facilitating deforestation for minerals. The proposal must be revised to include serious, enforceable social and environmental protections. Furthermore, as the Commission itself acknowledges, mining is high-risk investment that requires financial support: all the more reason to include financial institutions in future rules about Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence.


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Categorias: Forest Watch, Critical minerals

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