Extraction of mineral resources has risen markedly in recent decades and will continue to grow to serve the needs of a growing population. The UN Environment Assembly calls for more responsible governance of the extractive sector based on consensus-based principles, policy options and best practices that are compatible with the Sustainable Development Goals.
Mineral Resource Governance at the UN Environment Assembly
Minerals and metals play a central role in the global economy, as they provide the raw material we need for industrial processes and daily use. Despite enormous efforts to decouple economies from resource use, the extraction of mineral resources has increased markedly in recent decades and, over the last decade, at a faster rate than economic growth. This trend is forecasted to steadily increase in the future, as we struggle to meet the mineral resource needs of a growing global population that is expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by the end of the century.
Unsustainable extraction, manufacturing, use and disposal of resources is having important detrimental impacts of people and the planet. At the 5th UN Environment Assembly concluded on 2 March 2022 in Nairobi, delegates discussed this important issue and adopted a resolution on the Environmental aspects of minerals and metals management (UNEP/EA.5/Res.12). Building on the UNEA-4 resolution on the matter, Member States stressed the “need for enhanced action to support the environmental sustainability management of minerals and metals” along their full lifecycle. The resolution requests the convening of intergovernmental regional consultations, followed by a global intergovernmental meeting, to develop proposals to enhance the environmental sustainability of minerals and metals along their full life cycle, to be held in Geneva, where many organizations are actively working on issues related to resources governance.
The United Nations Environment Assembly requests the Executive Director, subject to available resources, to convene transparent and inclusive intergovernmental regional consultations, including with relevant international organizations, with regional and multilateral environmental agreements, and with relevant stakeholders acting as observers, to feed into a global intergovernmental meeting, with the aim of developing non-prescriptive proposals to enhance the environmental sustainability of minerals and metals along their full life cycle, in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development;
Key Elements of the UNEA5 Resolution
The United Nations Environment Assembly,
1. Encourages Member States, and invites relevant stakeholders along the full life cycle of minerals and metals, from both the public and private sectors, to align their mining practices and their investments in mining with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and with their obligations and decisions under multilateral environmental agreements, as appropriate;
2. Requests the Executive Director, subject to available resources, to convene transparent and inclusive intergovernmental regional consultations, including with relevant international organizations, with regional and multilateral environmental agreements, and with relevant stakeholders acting as observers, to feed into a global intergovernmental meeting, with the aim of developing non-prescriptive proposals to enhance the environmental sustainability of minerals and metals along their full life cycle, in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development;
3. Decides that the intergovernmental regional consultations will:
(a) Take stock of existing activities and actions in the public and private sectors and by other relevant stakeholders to enhance the environmental sustainability of minerals and metals and identify, among other things, best practices, responsible business practices, standards, guidelines, technical tools, environmentally sustainable technologies and the use of renewable energy in mining;
(b) Identify opportunities for enhanced international cooperation, including with a view to fostering capacity-building and technological, technical and scientific cooperation in the mining sector, in particular with developing countries;
(c) Identify possible ways forward for consideration by the Environment Assembly at its sixth session, as appropriate;
4. Requests the Executive Director, through the Global Resource Information Database (GRID-Geneva), to strengthen scientific, technical and policy knowledge with regard to sand, and to support global policies and action regarding the environmentally sound extraction and use thereof;
5. Also requests the Executive Director, subject to the availability of resources, with the engagement of the secretariats of relevant multilateral environmental agreements, organizations and stakeholders, as appropriate, and bearing in mind the launch of the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management, to compile a report on knowledge gaps in relation to the environmental aspects of tailings management;
6. Further requests the Executive Director to report to the United Nations Environment Assembly at its sixth session on the progress achieved in the implementation of the present resolution, including through a summary report on the consultations for consideration by the Environment Assembly at that session.
Challenges and Opportunities of Mineral Resource Governance
The growing demand for metals and minerals presents notable opportunities for resource-rich developing countries to harness their extractive wealth to advance economic development and human well-being. As such, the minerals and metals industry also has the potential to successfully support countries in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. In many cases, however, extractive activities in these countries has not not translated into broad-based economic, human and social development. Furthermore, current resource management practices often lead to environmental degradation. Therefore, planning for a post-mining economy that considers social development and community satisfaction with quality of life must remain an essential goal of improved governance in the sector.
In the report Mineral Resource Governance in the 21st Century: Gearing Extractive Industries Towards Sustainable Development (2020), the International Resource Panel and the UN Environment Programme assesses governance gaps in the extractive sector and provides suggestions on how to improve the economic performance of the extractive sector while ensuring that it complies with the highest social and environmental standards at national and international levels. The report provides guidance on how the extractive sector can establish a modern governance structure which addresses resource security and efficiency—an area of particular interest to developed nations—and satisfies the demand for continuous structural transformation, economic development and diversification in resource-exporting, developing countries.
Environmental and Social Impact of Mining
Unsustainable production and consumption systems powered by relentless extraction of natural resources have been driving the inter-linked planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. According the World Resources Forum, resource extraction and processing are responsible for over 80% of biodiversity loss and water stress, and for 50% of carbon emissions globally. And global material resource use is expected to more than double from 2015 to 2050.
Following is a list of impacts relating to the extractive sector provided by the IRP/UNEP report.
Freshwater competition and contamination
Water contamination can have a huge impact on biodiversity and ecosystem services. Increased silt within watercourses can disrupt visibility and the migration patterns of aquatic species. In extreme cases, long-term changes in the water table can fundamentally change the soil conditions in an area, leading to different habitat types becoming established. For example, water contamination in important fishing or aquaculture areas can have particularly negative social and economic impacts.
Solid waste production
Depending on the specific ore grades and degree of overburden, the ratio of waste to metal mined is large. Mineral extraction is the largest global waste producer, particularly from copper, zinc, bauxite and nickel mining. The waste generated is usually stored as tailings that, as earlier noted, are a major hazard.
All mining stages can affect air quality since fine particles and dust are often produced and dispersed by the wind. This can lead to a range of environmental impacts and adverse human health effects, particularly if the dust contains heavy metals. Air pollutants also pose a risk to ecosystems, and this in turn can impact human health and welfare through contaminated food, water and a loss of other ecosystem services. Air pollution can also impact biodiversity, through both direct and indirect impacts.
Soil erosion and contamination
Land conversion due to mining and its infrastructure destroys or contaminates soil cover in many cases, which constitutes a long-term or even total loss of agricultural potential. Mining processes, such as crushing and milling, significantly reduce soil particle sizes, thereby aggravating erosion by rainfall, runoff water or wind. This can have significant impact on the immediate and downstream ecosystems and human health.
Impacts on important areas for biodiversity
Impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems can be particularly high where mining activities are located in protected areas and other areas of high biodiversity value and sensitivity. The countries with the greatest number of mining operations within areas of biodiversity importance are the United States, China, Australia, Brazil and Canada. Alliance for Zero Extinction sites represent the last refuge for Critically Endangered and Endangered species based on the IUCN Red List of Threatened species. Of the 588 sites globally identified, 60 contain one or more mines in 29 countries. This could lead to potentially large impacts on the conservation status of particular areas and species.
While mining affects the environment, climate change also has impacts on the mining sector. Extractive industries contribute to climate change mostly due to environmental destruction of potential carbon sinks due to deforestation and degradation of ecosystems. Mining is one of the most intensive users of heavy fuel oil. Climate change polices will impact demand and supply of mineral resources. Climate change will provoke adjustments in the value of mineral resources and, more importantly, climate mitigation instruments may profoundly alter institutions of mineral resource governance in unpredictable ways.
Recommended National and International Measures
Understanding the necessity for broader actions, the IRP/UNEP report contains a list of key recommendations for implementation at both national and international levels. The International Resource Panel strongly believes that effective work at national level with broad and inclusive involvement of all stakeholders including “host and home” country governments, the international community, mining companies and civil society organizations should lead to the adoption of a strategic development plan. The plan must contain targeted actions for the Sustainable Development Goals and define performance standards.
In order to facilitate its implementation, the International Resource Panel suggests including mining laws and regulations in the plan, which enshrine the principles of consultation, transparency and reporting as well as recognize and promote the rights of local populations. Failure to govern mineral resources is primarily political and behavioural in nature, related to governance and human failures to create institutional arrangements that support coordinated actions locally, nationally and internationally. Read more about key recommendations below.
Decoupling Economic Growth from Environmental and Social Impacts
Mining activities must be conducted with due care for the associated environmental and social impacts if it is to deliver sustainable development. The World Summit on Sustainable Development outlines the thinking that should guide the mining sector.
Protecting Human Rights
Resources extraction generate conflict that leads to human rights violations. Many governments in the global south may be unwilling to protect human rights, especially when exploitation of natural resources benefits the elites. In addition, government unwillingness may be the result of undue influence by unscrupulous mining companies. Indigenous people are particularly impacted. Read more →
The frequently severe and enduring environmental impacts of mining highlight the need to carefully balance such activities with stewardship of other valuable natural resources and the environment including ecosystems and biodiversity, and the rights of local people and communities. Decision-making in the extractive sector is shaped by a complex array of governance frameworks and initiatives operating along highly globalized mineral value chains. Read more →
Ensuring Responsible Business Practices
At the local level, extractive activities are expected to provide jobs and local development, while at the national level there are expectations that revenues will fund development projects. However, this is not usually the case. While this is leading to more responsible business practices, there is a need for greater integration of these practices in companies’ strategies. The transparency and global nature of extractive value chain means that all gaps can be addressed.
Balancing Security of Supply Concerns versus Sustainable Development Aspirations
Although much of the extractive industry is located in OECD countries and emerging economies, extractive industries are also important to the economies of many developing countries. However, output from developing countries is largely used in the more developed countries as inputs to key industries. Security of supply may override concerns for good governance and, in many cases, minerals become the key enabler of poor governance. Read more →
Introducing the Sustainable Development License to Operate
The IRP/UNEP report suggests to replace the concept of “social license to operate”— which was used by mining companies to build public trust and prevent social conflict—with a new governance model, which the authors call the “Sustainable Development License to Operate”. It is a more holistic, integrated and inclusive approach, through which companies can achieve positive economic, social and environmental results. It is designed to look at all the extractive industry as a whole and identify opportunities for contributing to sustainable development.
The proposals include reaching an international consensus regarding the normative content and structure of the Sustainable Development Licence to Operate informed by expert inputs from a “Highlevel Panel on Mining for Sustainable Development”. It further considers the creation of an International Mineral Agency to share relevant information and data. The report also investigates artisanal and small-scale mining and development minerals sectors which are an important source of livelihoods for marginalized populations, often overlooked by policymakers. Read more →
Key Actors for Resources Governance
The IRP was launched by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2007 to build and share the knowledge needed to improve our use of resources worldwide. The panel provides advice and connections between policymakers, industry and the community on ways to improve global and local resource management. It includes scientists and governments from both developed and developing regions, civil society, industrial and international organizations.
The WRF is an international non-profit organisation which aims to mobilize action to promote sustainability and fairness in the global use of natural resources. Through various projects, mainly in the global South, its work focuses on resource extraction, circularity and recovery. WRF hosts a yearly multi-stakeholder conference to build knowledge and support for collaborative action on sustainable resources management. It acts as an interactive platform for sharing and discussing the latest research, policies and practices in the field. Several editions were held in Geneva. The next conference, World Resources Forum 2023, will take place in Geneva on 5-7 September 2023, under the theme “Rethinking Value — Resources for Planetary Wellbeing”.
The Role of Geneva
Organizations are listed in alphabetical order.
The Aarhus Convention on access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters, hosted by UNECE, is also devoting a part of its work on the protection of environmental defenders. The Aarhus Convention grants the public broad and concrete rights of participation in decision-making and imposes obligations regarding access to information on parties and public authorities.
Green Growth Knowledge Partnership (GGKP)
In its resolution on Mineral Resource Governance (UNEP/EA.4/L.19), the United Nations Environment Assembly asked United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to collect information on sustainable practices, identify knowledge gaps and options for implementation strategies, and undertake an overview of existing assessments of different governance initiatives and approaches relating to sustainable management of metal and mineral resources, including emerging issues linked to sustainable management of sand resources and of mine tailings.
Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF)
The Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF) is a voluntary initiative that provides opportunities for national governments with an interest in mining to work collectively to advance the priorities identified in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation and—more recently—the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030.
The Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF) will convene in-person for its 18th Annual General Meeting (AGM) on November 7–10, 2022 in Geneva, Switzerland and hosted by UNCTAD.
International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)
The mining sector is one of the areas of focus for the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). Since 2015, the institute has hosted the Secretariat to the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF) with more than 75 member nations committed to leveraging mining for sustainable development to ensure that negative impacts are limited and financial benefits are shared (see above). IISD has also been deeply involved in the development of a Model Mining Development Agreement (MMDA) with the International Bar Association’s (IBA) Mining Law Committee.
International Labour Organization (ILO)
The only tripartite U.N. agency, since 1919 the International Labour Organization (ILO) brings together governments, employers and workers of 187 member States, to set labour standards, develop policies and devise programmes promoting decent work for all women and men.
ILO recognizes the need for further action and its strategy seeks in to further intensify dissemination of Convention 169, including by promoting dialogue among the key stakeholders, sharing experience of good practices and training. ILO also recognizes that indigenous and tribal women face discrimination on multiple grounds, both outside and within their communities. ILO will seek to develop interventions to address the specific barriers and challenges faced by them.
International Organization for Standardization (ISO)
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is one of the largest organisation developing standards and is committed to improving resource efficiency and promote the development of a circular economy based on the optimal use of resources. ISO provides a series of voluntary standards for the mining sector. The ISO Technical Committee on mining provides expert insights for the standardization of various practices related to extractive activities, including for reducing the environmental impacts associated with the cessation of mining activities.
United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)
UNECE helps strengthen sustainable resource management in Europe with the United Nations Framework Classification for Resources. Over the course of 2022, a series of high-level international conferences have provided opportunities to engage with stakeholders across government, industry and civil society to encourage sustainable resource management. Among key tools is the United Nations Framework Classification for Resources (UNFC), developed at UNECE, which is the first widely accepted and internationally-harmonized system for classifying, managing and reporting natural resources.
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
As the global authority that sets the environmental agenda, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) provides important work on issues of mineral resources governance. The UN Environment Assembly has been addressing the issue at its 4th and 5th assemblies, adopting resolutions to further international cooperation for sustainable resources management.
In Geneva, the UNEP Resources and Market Branch is striving to decouple economic development from resource use and environmental degradation, while reaping the benefits of this transition to ensure inclusiveness and poverty eradication. Geneva also hosts the UNEP Europe Office which develops projects in the pan-European region, including on green economy and resource efficiency.
UNEP/GRID-Geneva is leading the Global Marine Sand Watch, a platform to help countries and stakeholders monitor dredging activities in near real-time towards the goal of capacity building, development of guidelines and best practices for sand extraction. GRID-Geneva was mandated by UNEA to “strengthen scientific, technical and policy knowledge with regard to sand, to support global policies and action regarding its environmentally sound extraction and use” (UNEP/EA.5/Res.12).
WIPO is the global forum for intellectual property (IP) services, policy, information and cooperation. WIPO published the report Global Challenges for Innovation in Mining Industries exploring relations between mining innovation and other macro-factors such as commodity prices, transport innovation and environmental policy.
World Economic Forum (WEF)
Among the global issues covered by WEF is the “Perspectives on Responsible Natural Resource Management in Conflict-affected Countries” proving strategic analysis, trends and research on the topic.
World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF)
As the world’s leading conservation organization, WWF works in nearly 100 countries to tackle the most pressing issues at the intersection of nature, people, and climate. As resource extraction is often the cause of species decline and biodiversity loss, WWF works actively to stop harming extractive activities. In particular, WWF is campaigning against deep seabed mining, a lucrative activity which could cause irreversible damage on delicately balanced deep ocean ecosystems. Read more →
WWF Switzerland seeks to commit stakeholders from the watch and jewellery industry to finding innovative solutions to protect the environment, in particular forests, fresh water and wildlife that are currently threatened in several points of the sector’s supply chain. WWF also provided an assessment of the impact of gold mining and the role of Switzerland as a global gold hub.
Past GEN Events
United Nations Environment Programme, International Positive Education Network (IPEN), Geneva Environment Network | 21 September 2022
UNEP Global Resource Information Database Geneva, Geneva Environment Network | 26 April 2022
UNEP/GRID-Geneva | 12 October 2021
- UNEA Mineral Resource Governance Resolution Initiative
- Sand and Sustainability: 10 Strategic Recommendations to Avert a Crisis | UNEP/GRID-Geneva | 26 April 2022
- Mineral Resource Governance and the Global Goals: An agenda for international collaboration | UNEP | January 2022
- EMG Nexus Dialogue on Mineral Resource Governance | UN EMG | November 2020
- Sand and Sustainability: Finding new solutions for environmental governance 2019 of global sand resources | UNEP | 2019