Improper mining practices in the past have caused considerable damage to the environment. The 2015 Fundão dam disaster in Brazil incurred costs of at least 4.6 billion euros. The dam break released 33 million cubic metres of partly toxic mining waste in a highly contaminated mudslide which, 17 days later, was dumped into the Atlantic Ocean 650 kilometres away. "This type of environmental damage can be avoided if rigorous environmental standards are implemented, monitored and observed. We must prevent lack of protection of the environment from becoming the incalculable driver of the costs of the raw materials on which our businesses depend. Cutting corners in matters of environmental protection is very short-sighted in economic terms," said Ms Krautzberger.
The environmental impact of raw material extraction goes far beyond such disasters and accidents. It ranges from high energy and water consumption to the leaching of heavy metals or radioisotopes into soil or groundwater.
Despite progress in recycling the worldwide demand for raw materials will have to be met mainly by mining in the next few decades. "We will continue to be dependent on new raw materials also for the energy transition (Energiewende) because there is not enough recycled material available. One example is the lithium which is needed for energy storage. It cannot currently be efficiently recovered from used batteries and is instead sourced from mineral resources abroad. Strict standards must ensure that environmental damage caused by lithium mining or cobalt does not become the Achilles heel of the Energiewende," continued Ms Krautzberger. A new UBA report states that the global demand for lithium for use in energy storage technologies could increase by a factor of 12 up to the year 2050, compared to global annual production in 2013.
The UBA recommends the following three courses of action:
- The EU must focus more strongly on the environmental aspects of mining in its evaluation of raw material “criticality”. The EU’s concept of criticality addresses the economic importance of raw materials and juxtaposes it with the geopolitical/technical risks of supply. “Environmental risk of mining” should be added to the catalogue of criteria in this context. Whether or not a material is “critical” would in future be assessed based on the environmental hazard potential of its extraction and on the level of environmental protection which the producing countries have in place. According to UBA’s recommendation, zinc and copper, for example, would need to be classified as ecologically critical in future.
- UBA also recommends the introduction of a system of binding commitments to human rights and of social and social due diligence along the entire raw material supply chain – from mine to the final product. The system should include mechanisms which incorporate the costs of mining to the environment along the supply chain so that the prices of raw materials and products reflect the ecological truth. Monitoring and local training measures should be part of the system to ensure that actual improvements are made in the producing countries.
- In order to bring producing countries in the global South on board with regard to stricter environmental and social standards in mining, the German Environment Agency recommends that best practice demonstration projects on the extraction of metal ores be carried out in those countries.