The Sixth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6), which concluded earlier this month, was mired in disagreement and procedural roadblocks, resulting in an outcome that does not sufficiently address the environmental and social risks of mineral mining in the low-carbon transition, write Gyubin Hwang, Jan Morrill, Jodi-Ann Wang and Yblin Roman Escobar.

The energy transition is accelerating global demand for minerals and metals that are critical to the manufacture of low-carbon technologies. This in turn increases the current and potential environmental and social risks and harms linked to mining. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and UN member states were tasked with addressing these challenges at the Sixth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6) in Nairobi, which concluded in early March 2024.

UNEA-6 resulted in the adoption of Resolution 6/8 on the environmental aspects of minerals and metals, which aims to build on two preceding resolutions: 4/19 on mineral resource governance and, significantly, 5/12 on the environmental aspects of minerals and metals management. However, to the disappointment of many stakeholder groups and rights-holders, this resolution failed to take the essential steps to address the risks posed by mining, losing much of the policy momentum that UNEP had built in the lead-up to the meeting. We discuss the factors that contributed to the lacklustre nature of the final UNEA-6 text and suggest steps that can be taken to improve environmental governance in the extractive sector.

The build-up to UNEA-6

In September 2023, the Global Intergovernmental Meeting on the environmental aspects of minerals and metals management (aligned with Resolution 5/12) hosted a series of discussions on 24 non-prescriptive proposals (NPPs) that had been identified through prior regional consultations. The following four NPPs were identified as having broad policy support:

  • Global collection and assessment of existing standards and certification schemes in the mining sector.
  • Capacity building and technical assistance to improve the management of mining and tailings.
  • The connection of mining governance with the circular economy, sustainable consumption and production.
  • The creation of an open-ended working group or technical group to respond to and further develop NPPs.

The consultations signalled that the mining sector suffers from a “legitimacy crisis” and, in response to this trust gap, highlighted best practices to avoid and mitigate social and environmental issues. These included: ensuring Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) for mining operations on Indigenous Peoples’ territories; addressing health risks posed by mining; increasing transparency and access to information; and adopting the precautionary principle with regards to deep-sea mining.

Building on this momentum, Switzerland and Senegal submitted a robust draft resolution for UNEA-6 that outlined a clear way forward to operationalise the outcomes of the 5/12 process.

Expectations versus reality: what happened at UNEA-6? 

Despite the general sentiment of support for continued international coordination during the prior consultations, delegates remained deeply divided over the course of the negotiations, first at the meetings of the Open-Ended Committee of Permanent Representatives (OECPR) and subsequently during UNEA-6. At the closing of the OECPR, after an entire week of sessions dedicated to reviewing and revising the draft text of the resolution, not a single paragraph had been agreed upon. Delegates were fundamentally misaligned on whether and how to build on the outcomes of the previous resolution, and how proposed processes could adequately engage states without infringing on their sovereignty or the legal mandates of other organisations such as the International Seabed Authority (ISA) and the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF). Geopolitical concerns were also on clear display in the resolutions, which saw debate on the resolution on environmental assistance and recovery in areas affected by armed conflict that was submitted by Ukraine.

Key points of discussion that arose in the negotiations included:

The scope of the proposed global study

Despite many member states agreeing during the consultations that a global study of existing instruments would be of fundamental importance in assessing potential future steps for environmental governance in the mining sector, efforts by some member states at UNEA-6 to dilute the language ultimately succeeded. Rather than a landscape review or analysis that would enable UNEP to provide additional insights, the final language – initially proposed by the US delegation – calls for a “digital knowledge hub to compile […] existing good practices”.This represents a significantly weaker outcome amounting to a literature review rather than a thorough study.

The remit of the proposed open-ended expert group

Delegates were unconvinced of the need for an expert group and how it would meaningfully drive further development of the NPPs identified through the 5/12 process. Many countries felt that the remit of the group duplicated the 5/12 process and considered the discussion of the implementation of NPPs to be a step too far. Other member states attempted to narrow the scope of the expert group to an “ad hoc technical group”, a development that was challenged by the proposal’s co-proponents and co-sponsors.

UNEP’s mandate on deep-sea mining

The discussion around the operative paragraph on deep-sea mining (or seabed mining) was contentious as expected, with objections largely pointing out potential clashes between UNEP’s remit and that of the International Seabed Authority, which has an exclusive mandate over matters of deep-sea mining in “the seabed, and ocean floor and subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdictions”. However, the Secretariat Technical Note highlighted that “there are opportunities for synergies with the UNEP mandate”.

Delegates recommended in the draft resolution on oceans that the question of deep-sea mining is considered, but this language was removed from the final version, 6/18, on strengthening ocean efforts to tackle climate change, marine biodiversity loss and pollution

An initial week of fraught negotiations at the OECPR saw discussions run into the weekend, still with little forward movement. Delegates were mired in procedural debates over which text to work from and non-substantive alternative language proposals. They eventually came to an agreement in a closed-door unofficial discussion that resulted in a drastically stripped back text. Stakeholders including youth groups and NGOs were not allowed into these final discussions, and the rationale behind the changes to the text has not been made public.

(The table at the end of the commentary provides an overview of key changes and omissions in the UNEA-6 resolution text.)

Prospects for a just transition in mining and minerals

All in all, at UNEA-6 nations did not meet the challenges of mineral governance with the urgency that is needed to ensure a clean, just and equitable transition away from fossil fuels. Instead, they posed procedural roadblocks, stripped away the strongest provisions and settled on a text that does not propose meaningful outcomes.

Despite the unsatisfactory solution to navigating the proliferating and fragmented global instruments, classifications and standards around minerals and metals, a more considered future is being paved by non-government stakeholders. Groups including communities impacted by mining, Indigenous Peoples, workers and civil society, including children and young people, have been working to identify a path forward for the mining industry that promotes intergenerational equity, respect for human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ sovereignty, and responsible environmental stewardship.

Establishing meaningful governance solutions requires collaboration between diverse stakeholders from different geographical regions and multilateral solutions to these challenges. UNEP remains well-positioned to convene multi-stakeholder dialogues, strengthen capacities and seek global coordination on addressing environmental challenges in the mining sector – despite the disappointing lack of ambition in the newly adopted resolution. Initiatives such as the UN Secretary General’s Working Group on Transforming Extractive Industries for Sustainable Development, the UN Framework on Just Transitions for Critical Energy Transition Minerals, the UN Secretary General’s Panel on Critical Energy Transition Minerals and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative can be used to push for effective action and advise nations to adhere to the highest standards in safeguarding social and environmental protections.

A more responsible extractive sector is also dependent on reduced demand for primary raw materials, lower material intensity and improved material efficiency, and the adoption of circular economy approaches. These factors were raised in the recommendations of the International Resource Panel’s 2024 Global Resources Outlook, launched at UNEA-6 amidst ongoing negotiations. Wealthy countries in particular need to set targets and plans to reduce absolute resource consumption in the built environment, mobility, food and energy. In the case of the energy transition, reducing overall energy demand can help to minimise the need for mining and material-intensive low-carbon energy infrastructure and thus minimising the pressure on affected communities and the environment.  

As the world scrambles to secure mineral resources for the energy transition, there is a risk of deepening the harm already caused by the extractive sector and perpetuating social and environmental injustices. A responsible mining industry can play a key role in enabling the just energy transition. Securing a fairer, cleaner future requires the meaningful contribution of all stakeholders. For example:

  • Governments should utilise policy tools to address overconsumption of materials and resource efficiency.
  • Financial institutions should engage with mining companies to support them to adhere to the highest industry standards.
  • Mining companies must engage in good faith with affected communities and work together with stakeholders and rights holders to address the social and environmental impacts of their activities on communities while reforming existing practices to prevent these impacts in the future.
  • Mining industry stakeholders – workers, consumers, value chains, and affected communities – in all locations should continue to push for effective, concerted action.

Overview of key changes and omissions in the drafting at UNEA-6 of Resolution 6/8 on the environmental aspects of minerals and metals

Key themeLanguage in revision 1 (9 February 2024)Final agreed language (28 February 2024)
Human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rightsPP8 [Preambular paragraph 8] Recognizing that human rights, including General Assembly resolution 76/300 entitled “The human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment”, as well as Indigenous rights, must be fully respected, including free, prior and informed consent in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous PeoplesPP7 Noting General Assembly resolution 76/300 entitled “The human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment”  
Global study and assessment of existing instrumentsOP2 [Operative paragraph 2] Requests the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme to conduct a global study assessing existing voluntary and legally binding instruments relating to the environmental sustainability of minerals and metals along their full life cycle, including their effectiveness and alignment with internationally agreed environmental obligations, targets and goals, in cooperation with Member States, UN regional economic commissions, and secretariats of multilateral environment agreements and relevant initiatives, building on existing work, in order to identify gaps in addressing environmental challenges as well as policy-relevant recommendations for addressing them, for consideration by the Environment Assembly at its seventh sessionOP2 Requests the Executive Director […] to: (a) Establish a digital knowledge hub to compile, inter alia, existing good practices relevant to the environmental aspects of minerals and metals, and to share, as appropriate, this information with all Member States and stakeholders;
Building on the non-prescriptive proposals developed via 5/12 consultationsOP3 Decides to establish an open-ended expert group to further develop and prioritize the non-prescriptive proposals and their implementation, with the objective of enhancing the environmental sustainability of minerals and metals along their full life cycle, taking into account social and economic aspects as the cornerstones of a just transitionOP2 Requests the Executive Director […] to: (b) Develop capacity-building opportunities…; (c) Support enhanced cooperation among Member States
Reducing material dependenceOP1​​Calls on Member States […]to promoting [sic] sustainable consumption in order to reduce dependence on raw materialsNo reference
Sand observatoryOP5 Requests the Executive Director to establish a global sand observatory at the Global Resource Information Database – Geneva (GRID-Geneva)No reference
Seabed miningOP6 Requests the Executive Director to strengthen scientific knowledge with respect to the environmental impacts and risks associated with potential future deep sea mining activities, in line with the precautionary approach, and, within the mandate of the United Nations Environment Programme, to strengthen collaboration with the International Seabed Authority in that respectNo reference
Tailings managementPP9 Welcoming the United Nations Environment Programme report on knowledge gaps in relation to the environmental aspects of tailings management, prepared pursuant to Environment Assembly resolution 5/12, and acknowledging in this regard the framework, guidelines and tools for strengthening mine tailings safety provided by the 1992 Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial AccidentsNo reference
Notes: PP refers to Preambular Paragraphs in the resolution. OP refers to Operative Paragraphs in the resolution. Bold text is authors’ own emphasis.

This commentary was written by Gyubin Hwang, Global Coordinator, Children and Youth Major Group, UNEP, Jodi-Ann Wang, Policy Analyst (Sustainable Finance) at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, LSE, Jan Morrill, Tailings Campaign Manager, Earthworks and Yblin Roman Escobar, Facilitator, Securing Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in the Green Economy Coalition (SIRGE).

Further reading on best practice for a sustainable and socially just mining sector:

The Grantham Research Institute hosts the Just Transition Finance Lab, which will publish a first output on the mining sector in 2024 that will look at the unique challenge of delivering a just transition in mineral extraction and mining, and the levers available to finance to interact with the sector.

Keep in touch with the Grantham Research Institute at LSE
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