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Minerals are Essential to address Climate Change and meet Sustainable Development Goals

In 2013, the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) launched the Resourcing Future Generations (RFG) initiative to bring world attention to the challenges of sustaining resource supplies. The RFG initiative includes a diverse group of geoscientists, environmental and social scientists and economists, drawn from a range of institutions with diverse private and public experience in...

Earthen road sunset at Goche Ganas Lodge, near Windhoek, Namibia – a country with vast mineral potential – venue for the workshop on Resourcing Future Generations (Photograph by Saleem H. Ali)

In 2013, the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) launched the Resourcing Future Generations (RFG) initiative to bring world attention to the challenges of sustaining resource supplies. The RFG initiative includes a diverse group of geoscientists, environmental and social scientists and economists, drawn from a range of institutions with diverse private and public experience in exploration, mining and mineral policy, environmental protection, and sustainable development.

During its most recent workshop held in Namibia from July 25-30, 2015, which I had the pleasure of attending, the group noted the often neglected linkages between solutions to global change concerns such as climate change and mineral resource adequacy. Attempts to mitigate society’s carbon footprint while sustaining an reasonable pace of development necessarily involve an adequate and reliable supply of mineral raw materials.  However, this issue has received minimal global policy attention. The workshop aimed to develop an expert consensus document to raise the profile of this issue to the highest level of international decision-making.

The expert group substantiated the following key premises to develop an action agenda:

  • The 20th century was characterized by improvements in living standards for billions of people worldwide but this change was underpinned by a dramatic increase in utilization of water, energy and mineral resources.
  • Recycling and substitution will play an important role in supply but cannot eliminate the demand for primary resources in coming decades. This is largely because mineral stocks are locked in durable infrastructure that cannot be recycled immediately as well as broader supply constraints of such materials.
  • With a declining rate of mineral deposit discoveries, threats to global trade in mineral and accelerating demand for a range of mineral products, future supply cannot be assured.
  • With projections of further population growth to about 9 billion people by 2050 the world needs adequate supplies of mineral raw materials to fulfill the aspirations of this growing population.
  • Projections for energy technology, urbanization and economic growth will dramatically increase the demand for all mineral raw materials, and change the mix of needed metals and minerals. For example, increasing world energy production from wind and solar sources, and sequestering carbon from existing fossil fuel production requires greatly increased supplies of critical materials such as rare earth elements and tellurium, as well as more common materials like nickel, copper, and sand. This will change resource footprints for different countries, technologies, and growth scenarios.
  • Mineral deposits are irregularly distributed and their location controlled by geology.  Thus, the value of mineral resources must be recognized and assessed in the contexts of other land uses such as agriculture, forestry, water supply, habitats for fauna and flora, cultural and natural heritage as well as land for settlements and infrastructure. Furthermore, the use of materials, energy, and water are all interconnected.
  • Environmental protection and social license are part of sound public policy including sustainable resource use.  Both individual consumers and nations need to be accountable for their resource use, whether produced at home or abroad. Societal accountability and sustainable stewardship need to include responsible resource development as a viable land use.

These issues were discussed in the context of meeting targets such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, but without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs for minerals. This must be achieved through good governance of mineral revenues for social and economic development of minerals producing nations. Namibia was chosen as a venue for the workshop because the country has an exemplary Geological Survey, thereby providing opportunities for ecologically and economically efficient resource exploration and development for the country.

To address the needs of future generations for adequate resources we outline a series of steps and policy actions to secure sufficient and sustainable supply. The group concluded that this is critically important and action is needed by world leaders and the international community, as well as individual consumers.  Intergovernmental cooperation is essential to address supply problems in future decades because these challenges, although unpredictable in terms of time and detail, are foreseeable and inevitable.

Stay tuned as this group builds policy bridges between various international initiatives underway such as the International Resources Panel (IRP), The World Resources Forum,  The World Economic Forum’s various activities on minerals; The Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals Metals and Sustainable Development and the Global Energy Minerals and Markets dialogue

The following researchers and practitioners participated in this workshop in alphabetical order with affiliation in parentheses: Saleem Ali (University of Queensland, Australia); Nick Arndt (Institut des Sciences de la Terre, University Joseph Fourier, Grenoble France); Graham Brown (Former Head of Exploration AngloAmerican Corporation, UK); Alecos Demetriades (IUGS/IAGC Task Group on Global Geochemical Baselines and EuroGeoSurveys, Greece); Ray Durrheim (University of Witwatersrand, South Africa); Maria Amelia Enriquez (University of Para, Brazil, Member of IRP); Damien Giurco (University of Technology, Sydney, Australia); Judith Kinnaird (University of Witwatersrand, South Africa); Anna Littleboy (CSIRO, Australia); Fabio Massotti (Vale Corporation, Brazil); Larry Meinert (US Geological Survey); Edmund Nickless (Geological Society of London, UK); Roland Oberhansli (Potsdam University Germany; President of IUGS); Janet Salem (UNEP, Thailand); Gabi Schneider (The Namibian Geological Survey); Natalia Yakovleva (University of Newcastle, UK);  

His excellency, the Minister of Mining and Resources of Namibia, Mr. Obeth Kandjoze; Mr. Veston Malango  (CEO of the Chamber of Mines of Namibia); and Mr. Daniel Kali (Director of Namibia Diamond Corporation –Namdeb) also met with the working group during this period.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Saleem Ali
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.