climate smart mining facility

Can mining be climate-safe?

Opposition to World Bank’s climate-smart mining initiative grows

The World Bank’s launch of its “climate-smart” mining fund has attracted criticism from conservation groups, as the demand for precious minerals continues to rise.

Increased use of low-carbon technologies around the world has caused an uptick in demand for specific precious metals that are used in products ranging from solar cells to electric vehicle batteries. Those market trends are only expected to increase.

In 2017, the World Bank released a report entitled “The Growing Role of Minerals and Metals for a Low Carbon Future,” which found that the globe will see a “substantial increase in demand for several key minerals and metals to manufacture cleaner energy technologies,” as more economies engage in transitioning away from fossil fuels.

Related: Transportation needs a systemic overhaul to reduce emissions

Earlier this month, Sarah Maryssael, Tesla’s global supply manager of battery metals, told a group of mining executives in Washington that the company is predicting a shortage for minerals such as graphite, cobalt, lithium and nickel “in a few years time,” according to a report from Bloomberg. During her presentation, she pointed to a dearth of new investments in metals mining in the recent past.

World Bank’s ‘Climate-smart’ mining fund

To address this issue, the World Bank launched May 1 the Climate-Smart Mining Facility, declaring it to be the world’s first investment fund dedicated to making mining for minerals more sustainable.

“The facility will support the sustainable extraction and processing of minerals and metals used in clean energy technologies,” the World Bank said. “It focuses on helping resource-rich developing countries benefit from the increasing demand for minerals and metals, while ensuring the mining sector is managed in a way that minimizes the environmental and climate footprint.”

Related: Financing the Climate Paradigm Shift

The World Bank promises to assist governments in building policy, regulatory and legal frameworks to support sustainable mining, and aide in supporting projects such as incorporating more renewable energy into mining operations; supporting the strategic use of geological data for pinpointing mineral deposits; preventing deforestation and supporting sustainable land-use practices; and engaging in mineral recycling.

“Countries with strategic minerals have a real opportunity to benefit from the global shift to clean energy,” Riccardo Puliti, senior director and head of the World Bank’s energy and extractives global practice, said in a statement. “Developing countries can play a leading role in this transition: developing strategic minerals in a way that respects communities, ecosystems and the environment.”

The fund will target a total investment of $50 million, to be deployed over a 5-year timeframe. The World Bank said the fund has been developed in conjunction with the UN’s broader sustainable development goals, which seek to facilitate the decarbonization of energy and mining sectors while also providing benefits to the countries and communities that are directly impacted by mining and energy exploration.

Opposition grows

Conservation groups aren’t happy. They have called on the World Bank to amend its program to prioritize things like recycling, circular economy principles, public transit, and other solutions that emphasize non-mining solutions over mineral extraction.

More than 50 organizations, claiming to be working with hundreds of mining-affected communities across the world, sent a letter to the World Bank voicing their concerns and accusing the World Bank of partnering with mining industry stakeholders to develop the fund.

“Metals mining is one of the world’s dirtiest industries, responsible for at least 10% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions,” the letter reads. “Mining is linked to severe human rights abuses, violent conflict and unsafe working conditions in some parts of the world.”

The opponents, including Earthworks in the U.S., the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre in Switzerland, Center for International Environmental Law, the Conseil Régional des Organisations Non Gouvernementales de Développement in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and FARN in Argentina, among others, point to a suite of problematic mining operations: the use of child labor for cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo; indigenous community threats posed by copper, silver and nickel mining across Alaska’s Bristol Bay, Sámi lands in Norway, in Papua New Guinea; and the recent collapses of mine waste dams in Brazil, Mexico and Canada.

The letter also calls into question whether the World Bank will be able to ensure that new mining facilities follow its climate-friendly guidelines. “As demand for these scarce minerals skyrockets, the associated environmental and human impacts are likely to rise steeply as well,” the letter states, pointing to research from the University of Technology at Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures (UTS).

“Promoting business-as-usual mining is not the answer,” said Payal Sampat, EarthWorks’ mining program director, in a statement. “A truly ‘climate-smart’ agenda would prioritize recycling, reuse, substitution and consumption changes before new mining.”

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