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Mineral Resource Governance in the 21st Century and a sustainable European Union


  • Patrice Christmann



Minerals and metals are ingredients necessary for the production of multiple goods and services that are essential to contemporary societies, feeding frequently complex global supply chains. The development of the modern, material-intensive lifestyles has led to a formidable acceleration of their production, particularly since the middle of the 20th century. Despite all the progress that can and needs to be done towards a circular, resource-efficient global economy, several important trends including: demographic growth (United Nations 2019), the rapid development of the global middle class (Kharas 2017), growing urbanisation (United Nations 2018) and the transition towards a low-carbon global economy (Hund et al. 2020) point towards a continued, exponential growth of the global demand and production of minerals and metals (Christmann 2017; Elshkaki et al. 2018; Halada et al. 2008; Hund et al. 2020; Schipper et al. 2018). Despite the efforts made by some producers and some authorities to strengthen the already important contribution of the minerals and metals industry to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the production of minerals and metals has negative impacts both on the global and on local ecosystems. It already contributes to 16% of global CO2 emissions (OECD 2019) and it generates about 50 bn t solid waste per year, 25 times the estimated annual amount of urban waste (Franks et al. 2021). This waste is composed of mostly barren rock fragments, essentially overburden that needed to be stripped to access the ore, and of fine-grained ore processing tailings. The latter, if containing sulphides such as pyrite and residual minerals containing elements such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury, selenium or tellurium, can become highly problematic for the well-being of future generations. The production of minerals and metals also can be a source of conflicts and of social disruption. Failure to globally and sustainably manage the production of minerals and metals, in a transparent and multilateral framework providing a stable, foreseeable and level playing field for investors and for trade, could limit the capacity of the industry to reply to future demand and lead to potentially disastrous global conflicts. Depending on the practices of individual producers, on the quality of national and/or regional regulatory frameworks and on the effectiveness of their implementation, a same mineral or metal can be produced under very differing environmental and social conditions. Despite progress on sustainability performance reporting and of transparency of some parts of the industry, end-users of minerals and metals do not know how the minerals and metals they use have been produced and they hardly can choose among various supply sources, although from a sustainability perspective there are great differences among the practices of individual producers. The development of an international governance framework to support the development of transparency and verifiable corporate accountability, to foster research and innovation to reduce the negative impacts of the industry and to provide incentives rewarding pro-sustainability action, is called for. Support to document and disseminate best practice and best available technologies as well as to strengthen the global institutional capacities to manage this very complex and vital industry is needed. This could be an important role for a future International Minerals and Metals Agency. So far, only the exploration and mining of deep-sea mineral deposits located in international zones of the oceans are internationally regulated under the UN Convention On the Law Of the Sea (UNCLOS), with a specific International Agency in charge of its implementation and of the provision of scientific and technical guidance: the International Seabed Authority (Kingston, Jamaica), created in 1994. The European Union could and should play an important role in these developments as it is an important global end-user of minerals and metals mostly produced outside its borders. The EU’s environmental footprint outside its borders is very high and growing. According to EUROSTAT trade data, EU imports of goods from beyond its borders doubled in value from 2002 to 2018, with China’s share having grown by over 460% over this period, representing 19% of the total imports of goods. China is the world largest greenhouse gas emitter. EU’s very strong point is its long history of successful research and innovation, dating back to the Renaissance (15th Century BCE). Its very large and highly qualified human resources in science and innovation much benefits from progressive European-scale structuration and integration of mineral- and metal-related research and innovation thanks to the European Union raw material–related policies developed since 2008 (European Commission 2008) under the EU Raw Materials Initiative (see p. 20 ff.). The EIT Raw Materials, launched in 2015, is the world largest organised and funded mineral- and metal-related innovation network, linking over 120 partners from academia, industry and research organisations (EIT Raw Materials, 2021). But, despite these positive developments, it so far lacks the legal basis to develop its own mineral resource policy and its own homogeneous regulatory framework. It nevertheless can act in different areas that are linked to the development of a global, minerals and metals industry based on sustainable development principles through its capacity to act as European Union in domains such as development cooperation, energy, environment, higher education, research and innovation, as well as trade. It will require long-term vision and political leadership to develop and implement a sustainable EU raw materials policy that would also act as a catalyst for the development of much needed global minerals and metals governance. The publication by the European Commission, in September 2020, of its Action Plan on Critical Raw Materials, part of the European Raw Materials Initiative launched in 2008, could be an important step to address the issues outlined in this paper.

Suggested Citation

  • Patrice Christmann, 2021. "Mineral Resource Governance in the 21st Century and a sustainable European Union," Mineral Economics, Springer;Raw Materials Group (RMG);Luleå University of Technology, vol. 34(2), pages 187-208, July.
  • Handle: RePEc:spr:minecn:v:34:y:2021:i:2:d:10.1007_s13563-021-00265-4
    DOI: 10.1007/s13563-021-00265-4

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Alvarez-Martinez, Maria & Barrios, Salvador & d'Andria, Diego & Gesualdo, Maria & Nicodème, Gaëtan & Pycroft, Jonathan, 2018. "How Large is the Corporate Tax Base Erosion and Profit Shifting? A General Equilibrium Approach," CEPR Discussion Papers 12637, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
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    1. Gedam, Vidyadhar V. & Raut, Rakesh D. & Lopes de Sousa Jabbour, Ana Beatriz & Agrawal, Nishant, 2021. "Moving the circular economy forward in the mining industry: Challenges to closed-loop in an emerging economy," Resources Policy, Elsevier, vol. 74(C).
    2. Hámor-Vidó, Mária & Hámor, Tamás & Czirok, Lili, 2021. "Underground space, the legal governance of a critical resource in circular economy," Resources Policy, Elsevier, vol. 73(C).

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