Critical Raw Materials (CRM) like lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper, manganese, graphite and rare earth elements are crucial for renewable energy technologies like solar panels, wind turbines and for battery production, driving the global shift to electrification. Yet with surging demand, geopolitical uncertainties affecting supply, and significant environmental and social impacts linked to CRM extraction and use, all five United Nations Regional Commissions and international experts have called at COP28 for international coordination and urgent action to ensure that massive CRM expansion does not undermine sustainable development.
UNECE Executive Secretary Tatiana Molcean highlighted: “Delivering the decarbonization needed for the Paris Agreement depends on huge quantities of Critical Raw Materials. Therefore, leaders and industry are responsible for ensuring their extraction and use are as sustainable as possible. The good news is that we do not need to reinvent the wheel: the UN Framework Classification for Resources and UN Resource Management System provide tools to do just that, together with UN treaties to ensure that environmental and human rights issues are fully taken into account.”
Rising demand brings sustainability challenges
Lithium demand is expected to surge by nearly 90% in 20 years. Nickel and cobalt should rise by 60-70% in demand. Copper and rare earth elements expect a 40% increase in demand. Under the IEA net-zero emissions scenario, demand for these critical materials will more than triple by 2030.
Discussions in the official COP28 side event highlighted that minerals are also of huge economic importance, playing a significant role in the economies of 81 countries that account for 25% of global GDP, 50% of the world’s population and nearly 70% of those living in extreme poverty.
However, the use of these finite resources is currently far from sustainable. The world’s material footprint, currently at approximately 100 billion tonnes annually, is projected to double by 2060. The extraction and processing of materials, fuels, and food contribute to half of total global greenhouse gas emissions and over 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress.
The high-level exchanges emphasized that concerted efforts will be required to ensure respect for human rights and well-being at the heart of a just and inclusive transition, including for workers in the extractive industry, indigenous communities, and environmental defenders.
Drawing on the work of the UN Working Group on Transforming the Extractive Industries for Sustainable Development, the discussions also stressed that ensuring a sustainable supply of CRMs for the low-carbon energy transition requires diversification, innovation, effective governance, transparency, financing and investment, and a circular economy. Co-chaired by UNDP, UNEP and the UN Regional Commissions, the Working Group coordinates extractives-related work across the UN and beyond; serves as an information and knowledge hub to scale up and replicate good practices; provides policy advice and technical assistance; and assists in integrating the extractive industries’ work into other UN-wide initiatives, including on Financing for Development.