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Mining, minerals and firmer foundations for the future

03 November 2016

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Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt convenes the gender specialisation in the Masters in Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development (MAAPD) course and also teaches courses on Exploring Gender and Development.

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Mineral resource governance has long been a sticking point in international relations, and big improvements are needed to realise the Sustainable Development Goals. But a new UN body – the International Resource Panel – has been set up to lead the charge. Australia’s representative on the panel Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt explains how the group aims to tackle some big questions.

As we trudge through the Anthropocene, many people wonder whether natural resource investments can be sustainable in the age of climate change, and how we can break the links between economic growth and environmental degradation. These questions assume greater significance when placed in the context of Sustainable Development Goals that the UN has declared.

These questions led to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) establishing a high-level International Resource Panel (IRP) in 2007, consisting of eminent scientists who are highly skilled in scientific, technical and socio-economic aspects of resource management at both global and local levels. The purpose of the IRP is to build and share the knowledge needed to improve our use of resources worldwide with the ultimate goal of steering humanity away from overconsumption, waste and ecological harm to a more prosperous and sustainable future. The experts in the Panel are drawn from both developed and developing regions, civil society, industrial and international organisations to provide advice and connections between policymakers, industry and the community on ways to improve resource management.

Although working groups on food, agriculture, water and other such important resource uses were established reasonably quickly, this was not the case with mineral resource governance. Within the UN, mineral resource governance has been a complicated issue and the complex politics surrounding it have cast a long shadow over the IRP’s work to date. In particular, challenges arose in informing policies on the management of mining’s environmental and social impacts in such a way as to address the spirit and purpose of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Declaration on Climate Change. This challenge came about, in large part, because of the ongoing dependence of some nation states on mining revenues for continued economic prosperity. For example, in 2014 at the first session of the UN Environmental Assembly in Nairobi, of a suite of 25 Resolutions agreed upon by member states, only the one on resource governance failed due to the lack of agreement from mineral producing and exporting countries.

Despite such internal resistance the IRP is pushing ahead and has now established a Working Group to develop a set of research-based policy documents on mineral resource governance. The UN has prioritised this issue for a number of reasons. Foremost is the fact that climate change effects and the horrifying environmental impacts of mining can no longer be taken as ‘business as usual’. Other issues troubling the UN include the uneven distribution of the impacts from mining and the consumption of resources, various fiscal policies, and the need to attach more importance to corporate social responsibility.

The slow pace in delivering outcomes and the few concrete achievements have, however, led to the UNEP developing a sense of mission. Although the use of natural resources is at the heart of the SDGs, the UN has no special agency taking care of natural resources. The natural resources and energy committee that was set up a decade ago has now been dissolved and no single agency has a mandate within the UN to deal with issues arising out of natural resource use.

The Working Group, therefore, is a significant policymaking achievement at the highest level and comprises representatives from the IRP and the UNEP, as well as experts from around the world with wide experience on mining and other mineral extractive industries.

The group recently met in Accra, Ghana, at the United Nations University’s Institute of Natural Resources, a meeting I attended as Australia’s sole representative on this body. The primary objective of UNEP in establishing this group is not just to continue the ongoing focus on resource efficiency, but to concentrate on the idea of ‘decoupling’- a term the IRP and the UNEP are championing as it applies to sustainable development.

There are two primary dimensions to the idea of decoupling as it is used by the UN: resource decoupling, which involves reducing the rate of use of resources per unit of economic activity; and, impact decoupling that means maintaining economic output while reducing the negative environmental impact of economic activities. Put it simply in the context of extractive industries, decoupling implies a separation of economic growth from mineral resource use. At the practical and policy level, this would have implications, for example, in the mix of energy sources a country uses. Moreover, the environmental, social and cultural impacts extractive industries leave in their wake would have to be taken into account. Last but not the least, decoupling addresses substantial equity issues in natural resource consumption. Consequently, one can easily foresee the tremendous significance this group’s outputs will have.

So what would the implications of decoupling mineral resource use from economic growth be for developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region? Some have asked if such a decoupling is even possible. Choices are not always easy, but the good news is that they are being made. In some European countries the idea of decoupling has caught on and there is a growing community realisation that the more developed countries must reduce their mineral resources use so that developing countries can increase theirs.

But at the same time, these developing nations have important choices to make; we cannot follow the same path of industrialised nations a century earlier. For sustainable development, with its focus on poverty reduction, universality and the integration of the environment with development issues, the urgent priority is to now pay closer attention to mineral resource governance.

This article was first published by Policy, the website of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society and Crawford School.

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