The critical minerals industries, essential to the transition to renewable energy, such as for electric vehicles, must ensure they do not replicate the appalling labor and environmental practices that have long characterized mining and other industries, Climate Rights International said today. As countries, companies, banks, and other institutions undertake and finance projects along the critical minerals supply chain, they should ensure that those projects respect the rights of local communities and do not harm the environment or exacerbate climate change.
On October 10, thirteen governments and the European Union, making up the Minerals Security Partnership (MSP), met in London with representatives of countries with emerging mineral economies and members of the private sector to discuss investments in critical minerals extraction, processing, and recovery.
“The climate crisis requires an urgent transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, which requires minerals and other materials to build new technologies, like solar panels, electric vehicle batteries, and windmills,” said Krista Shennum, researcher at Climate Rights International. “While we need critical minerals for the renewable energy transition, it is imperative that projects to extract and process those minerals do not lead to human rights abuses and environmental destruction.”
The MSP – which is made of Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Norway, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union – was created in 2022 with the goal of catalyzing public and private investments into sustainable, responsible critical mineral supply chains, from mining and extraction, to processing and refining, to recycling.
While the MSP’s guiding principles include a focus on promoting high environment, social, and economic governance (ESG) standards and engagement with local communities, it is not yet clear how MSP members will meet those standards.
At the London meeting, members of the MSP confirmed that they are supporting at least 17 projects on critical minerals. Yet the partnership has not publicly disclosed a complete list of projects receiving investments, only noting that they are working to advance, “Eleven projects in upstream mining and mineral extraction, four projects in midstream minerals processing, and two projects in recycling and recovery; one project focusing primarily on lithium, three on graphite, two on nickel, one on cobalt, one on manganese, two on copper, and seven on rare earth elements; five projects in the Americas, seven projects in Africa, three projects in Europe, and two projects in Asia-Pacific.”
To ensure that projects receiving investments by MSP members respect human rights and have a truly sustainable supply chain, local communities and civil society actors must have a seat at the table, as well as access to information about critical minerals projects, including information about projects’ investors. In particular, the rights to access informationand to participation are critical for local communities, including Indigenous Peoples who are disproportionately impacted by critical mineral projects. Globally, an estimated 54 percent of critical mineral mining projects are located on Indigenous Peoples’ lands, posing serious risks to Indigenous Peoples’ rights by endangering customary lands and the loss of traditional livelihoods.
“For the MSP to live up to its commitments on responsible and sustainable supply chains, countries must involve local people – not only project developers and financiers – in decisions that will directly impact their communities,” said Shennum. “They should also prohibit investments in any projects that use fossil fuels, as burning coal, oil, and gas to process critical minerals is a false solution.”
The MSP’s involvement in establishing standards for the critical minerals industry comes at an important moment. While critical minerals are needed to support the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, frontline communities are being subjected to acute and irreparable human rights and environmental harm. A 2022 report by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre found 510 abuse allegations associated with the mining of transition minerals from 2010 to 2022, including threats to land rights, workers’ rights, the right to clean drinking water, and the rights of Indigenous Peoples. In some countries, including Indonesia, the smelting of critical minerals is leading to a growth in fossil fuel use, making some critical mineral supply chains carbon-intensive and polluting. For example, a recent expansion of the Indonesia Morowali Industrial Park, one of the world’s largest nickel smelting areas, is leading to the construction of nine new coal plants, totaling a whopping 3,360 megawatts of coal capacity. Processing critical minerals using fossil fuels runs counter to the need to decarbonize. MSP members should only invest in projects that are powered using 100 percent renewable energy.
With increased transparency and public participation, the MSP could be an effective driver of environmentally responsible and rights respecting critical minerals supply chains that accelerate the renewable energy transition. But without the participation of local communities and groups at MSP meetings and transparency about which projects are receiving support by MSP members, these critical minerals projects may perpetuate the environmental and human rights harms of other extractive industries.
The European Union is a key actor in the MSP and wider discussions about critical minerals. In March 2023, the EU Commission proposed a draft Critical Raw Materials Act. At its September 2023 plenary session, the European Parliament adopted its position on the Act, seeking to “boost the supply of strategic raw materials, crucial to secure the EU’s transition to a sustainable, digital and sovereign future.” The Parliament will soon enter into negotiations with the Spanish presidency of the EU Council in order to reach agreement on the legislation.
“Despite the growing need for critical materials in electric vehicles and other renewable energy technologies, a just, sustainable energy transition requires that all projects that extract, process, and recover those minerals fully respect human rights, the environment, and the global climate,” said Shennum. “The MSP’s principles on responsible supply chains are solid on paper, but they must involve local communities and civil society groups, and they should be fully transparent to allow independent, impartial and expert scrutiny to ensure that critical mineral projects truly respect people and the planet.”
Photo Credit: Mining. Photo by: Shane McLendon via Unsplash (CC0).