April 20, 2024

In an attempt to avoid the “injustices and extractivism” of fossil fuel operations, African leaders are calling for better controls on the dash for the minerals and metals needed for a clean energy transition.

A resolution for structural change that will prioritise equitable benefit-sharing from extraction, supported by a group of mainly African countries including Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Chad, was presented at the United Nations environmental assembly in Nairobi on Wednesday and called for the sustainable use of transitional minerals.

“This resolution is crucial for African countries, the environment and the future of our population,” said Jean Marie Bope, a delegate from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which supported the resolution.

Demand for transitional minerals and metals, which are used to build renewable energy technologies such as solar plants, windfarms and electric vehicles, has surged over the past decade as the world transitions from fossil fuels. Billions of tonnes of transitional minerals will be needed in the next three decades if the world is to meet its climate goals, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

Africa holds substantial reserves of the critical minerals. More than a half of the world’s cobalt and manganese, and 92% of its platinum, are found on the continent. DRC produces two-thirds of the world’s cobalt, a mineral used to build electric-vehicle batteries. But despite its vast mineral wealth, it remains one of the world’s poorest countries. Child labour and rights abuses also remain widespread in the country’s mining sector.

The demand presents an opportunity for mineral-rich African countries that remains untapped, say leaders. Many of the region’s countries have limited capacity to process these critical transitional materials domestically. The minerals are often exported in their raw state and refined elsewhere, often in China, which does the bulk of global minerals processing and production.

A growing push from mineral-producing African countries looking to capitalise on economic growth and job creation from the green minerals race has meant several countries impoing restrictions on raw mineral exports in recent years, to support domestic processing. Agreements that prioritise technology transfers, and raise the country’s domestic processing capacity and workforce skill, are necessary for an equitable transition, leaders said at the assembly.

“Our experience of exporting them raw has shown us that there is no benefit for the continent in that,” said Bope, who participated in drafting the resolution. “Africa’s minerals are enough to power the clean energy transition, but we don’t want to do things how we have done them in the past.”

Environmental campaigners echoed calls for benefit sharing. While expressing support for the global shift towards low-carbon technologies, they said that the clean energy transition risks replicating existing inequalities across the African fossil fuel sector. The region exports roughly 75% of its crude oil, which is refined elsewhere and re-imported as petroleum products, according to the African Union. It exports 45% of its natural gas, which contributes only minimally to regional energy needs, even as 600 million Africans remain without access to electricity.

“We need to make sure that industrialisation happens here and that we’re not just serving another continent’s industrialisation plan,” said Seble Samuel, head of Africa campaigns and advocacy at the fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty initiative. “We cannot afford to replicate the same injustices and extractivism that’s happened with the fossil fuel economy.”

Inger Andersen, UNEP’s executive director, called on governments and businesses to use responsibly sourced minerals in their clean energy transition, and on mineral-rich countries to enter into contractual arrangements that safeguard against “colonial models” of resource and labour exploitation.

Campaigners also raised environmental and rights concerns around the mining of minerals, saying ill-regulated mining could lead to the depletion of resources, biodiversity loss, and place indigenous rights at risk.

Countries behind the resolution called on the UN to deepen global scientific knowledge on new practices such as deep sea mining – the extraction of critical minerals from the ocean’s floor – which environmentalists fear may endanger marine life.

Bope, who coordinates DRC’s national marine pollution monitoring programme, said: “The marine ecosystem is very sensitive, so it’s extremely important to scrutinise this while it’s still in the experimental phase, and understand its impacts.”

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