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Countdown to COP26 – Critical Minerals, Net Zero and Sustainable Development Goals

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

The UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow on 31 October – 12 November 2021.

The Critical Minerals Association supports COP26’s goal of securing global net zero by mid-century and keeping 1.5 degrees within reach by speeding up the switch to electric vehicles and encouraging investment in renewables.

What do we need to achieve at COP26 and how do critical minerals fit into this?

The first goal for COP26 is: Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach.

"Countries are being asked to come forward with ambitious 2030 emissions reductions targets that align with reaching net zero by the middle of the century. To deliver on these stretching targets, countries will need to:

  • accelerate the phase-out of coal

  • curtail deforestation

  • speed up the switch to electric vehicles

  • encourage investment in renewables"

To achieve this goal, at the Critical Minerals Association, we believe that the following measures need to be taken:

  1. Widespread recognition that renewable technologies and electric vehicles are made from metals and minerals, and that demand for these materials will continue to increase

  2. Ensuring that the critical minerals and materials in renewable technologies and electric vehicles needed to facilitate global net zero are produced alongside the protection/ restoration of ecosystems, and in support of local communities.

What are critical minerals and why do we need them for the Green Industrial Revolution?

Critical minerals are the building blocks of renewable energy technologies and essential in enabling the UK’s Green Industrial Revolution. We need these materials for technologies such as: wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles and battery storage.

There are multiple lists of 'critical minerals' - for example, the EU 2020 list, British Geological Survey 2015 risk list, Canada's Critical Minerals 2021 list, US Geological Survey 2018 list, Australia's Critical Minerals 2020 prospectus. While each list differs based on the methodology, a few common critical minerals are cobalt, graphite, lithium, rare earth elements, tungsten.

A World Bank Group report, "Minerals for Climate Action: "The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition," finds that "the production of minerals, such as graphite, lithium and cobalt, could increase by nearly 500% by 2050, to meet the growing demand for clean energy technologies. It estimates that over 3 billion tons of minerals and metals will be needed to deploy wind, solar and geothermal power, as well as energy storage, required for achieving a below 2°C future."

What is responsible sourcing of critical minerals? What is ESG?

Societies want to see the positive benefits that can arise from mineral extraction and processing. Responsible sourcing of critical minerals includes taking into account local environment and communities, adhering to national and international regulations, and minimising greenhouse gas emissions in energy intensive processes.

ESG stands for ‘Environment, Social and Governance’. The term derives from the concepts of ‘socially responsible investing’ and ‘sustainable development’ that emerged in the 1960s and 1970. More recently, ESG has established itself in capital markets. Investors in the raw materials space are increasingly concerned and motivated by the ESG performance of extractive companies.

  • ‘Socially responsible investing’ relates to investors excluding stocks or industries from their portfolios deemed not socially responsible (e.g. tobacco production).

  • ‘Sustainable development’ is centred on promoting equitable human progress that is also in balance with the natural world. Over the decades, aspects of sustainable development have been referred to as ‘corporate social responsibility’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘social licence to operate’.

How does responsible sourcing of critical minerals fit in with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere.

The development of critical minerals can play an important role in helping communities, industries and countries achieve these UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by:

  • Supporting job creation in host communities;

  • Providing minerals and metals for the electric vehicles and renewable energy infrastructure that will enable a low carbon economy;

  • Committing to diversity and inclusion in the workplace;

  • Investing in schools and hospitals;

  • Developing mines that reduce impact on the environment and protect water resources and biodiversity;

  • Working in partnership with stakeholders to address challenges and create new opportunities from mining investments;

  • Committing to ethical business practices and high standards of governance in the UK and wherever mining companies operate in the world.

Find out more about how the mining of critical minerals can align with SDGs in our Blueprint for Responsible Sourcing of Critical Minerals.

What Environmental, Social, Governance standards and regulations exist for mineral extraction?

A vast number of standards, regulations and monitoring initiatives have been developed over the last decades to provide guidance on expected performance levels or to give a framework for disclosure of performance.

These cover various geographic areas and focus on different themes including key performance indicators, biodiversity, environmental protection, human rights, conflict, greenhouse gases (GHGs) etc.

There is no single overarching standard that addresses all aspects of what constitutes good ESG performance. It can therefore be challenging for diversified mining companies with geographically dispersed projects to comply with all relevant standards. Likewise, Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), consumers, governments and investors find it difficult to understand which standards are expected and what areas they cover. Disclosure on ESG topics can be cumbersome, and without appropriate monitoring, any claims of adherence to outlined standards will not be fully verified.

To see the multitude of ESG Standards and Regulations in this space, have a look at our ‘ESG Standards’ table in the appendix on page 58-74.

What innovations and companies are working towards responsible sourcing of critical minerals?

Innovations and the development of new technologies play a key role in responsible sourcing of critical minerals. A number of UK companies are innovating to reduce waste, track supply chains and monitor environmental impacts, such as:

  • Supply Chain Traceability - Circulor

  • Life Cycle Assessment - Minviro

  • Tracked Provenance of Raw Materials - Source Certain

  • Waste Reduction & By-Products - Tungsten West

  • Proposed Net-Zero Mining - Dalradian

  • Innovative Lithium Extraction Technology - Cornish Lithium

  • Biodiversity Monitoring Using eDNA - Naturemetrics

  • Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) Disclosure - Digbee

  • Minimising Waste - Tiraputi Graphite

To find out more about their work, see our case studies on pages 44-52 in the Blueprint for Responsible Sourcing of Critical Minerals.

Circulor’s supply chain traceability system tracks the flow of material through processing and manufacturing by creating an immutable record of the chain of custody of materials from mine to manufacturer, and at the end of life, when they are recycled. Read more on p.44.

Source Certain deploys technology that chemically fingerprints raw and processed materials to verify the origin, or ‘provenance’, back to the mines and downstream processing facilities. Read more on p.46.

Naturemetrics is involved in the development of new technologies in biodiversity monitoring. Advances in tools such as remote sensing, bioacoustics and environmental DNA mean that routine implementation of detailed biodiversity assessment at large spatial scales is now possible. See case study on p.50.

Tungsten West identified the opportunity to reduce the emissions intensity of producing tungsten and tin concentrates by maximising the use of the process materials formally defined as ‘waste’, as high-quality aggregates for a local market. Read more on p.47.

Dalradian own a silver, copper and gold project in Northern Ireland. It plans to minimise the surface footprint of its proposed underground mine by mining and carrying out some processing underground and retaining the majority of mined materials underground. Read more on p.48.

Tirupati Graphite has reduced waste by developing a new technology that extracts the waste as a by-product (construction sand) in step 1 of processing. The remaining waste is clay which is being used for social development like brick making. Read more on p. 52.

Minviro supports companies to deploy Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) studies during development stages of their projects, weighing up pros and cons of mining and processing routes, so that decisions can be supplemented by environmental impact data, enabling incorporation of environmentally informed solutions. Read more on Life Cycle Assessments on p.45.

Cornish Lithium is pioneering the low carbon extraction of lithium from hard rock mica minerals, and from within lithium enriched geothermal waters in Cornwall, South West England. Read more on p.49.

Digbee ESG is a disclosure platform that allows mining companies to share their Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) status with investors and other interested parties. A carefully designed set of ESG focused questions complete with rationale and mapping to international standards provides the basis of each mining company’s board-approved self-assessment. This data is then scored by experts with deep experience in the mining sector. The publicly available output allows e.g. investors to ensure they are investing in responsible mining companies. Read more on p.51.

What should policymakers do to support responsible sourcing of critical minerals?

The UK has a long history of leadership in advancing universal values on human rights and environmental protection. ‘Global Britain’ offers a platform to lead in the renewable energy transition and set an example for responsible sourcing in the international critical minerals value chain.

The Critical Minerals Association recommends the UK Government takes urgent action with respect to the following, with linkages to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals highlighted where relevant. Further details can be found in our 'Blueprint for Responsible Sourcing of Critical Minerals' below.

UK Leadership on ESG in the Critical Minerals Sector (SDG 7, 12 AND 13)

  • Statement of Commitment from the UK Government

  • Responsible Value Chain ESG Rating System

Enabling Responsible Investment in UK Critical Minerals (SDG 4, 8, 9 AND 16)

  • Access to Capital, Setting Expectations, Responsible Sourcing, and Innovation

  • Supporting a Talent Pipeline

  • Streamlining Planning and Permitting

Driving Collaboration (SDG17)

  • Central Coordinating Body

  • Multi-Stakeholder Forum

  • International Collaboration

To find out more about more about what is needed to develop responsible supply chains of critical minerals for the UK’s Green Industrial Revolution, read our ESG Blueprint here.

Article by Kirsty Benham, Co-Founder, Critical Minerals Association

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