Stricter environmental standards for raw material supply necessary

Raw material prices must reflect the ecological truth

in einer bergigen, trockenen Landschaft klafft ein riesiges tiefes Loch mit terrassenförmigen Plateaus in der ErdeClick to enlarge
The extraction of raw materials has a huge environmental impact, as this Chilean copper mine shows
Source: Carol Meneses / Fotolia.com

In light of the global rise in the demand for raw materials, the German Environment Agency (UBA) is calling for more protection of the environment in the mining sector. “Germany as a large-scale importer carries some of the responsibility for the costs of local, regional and global environmental damage worldwide which is caused by the extraction of raw materials. Together with the EU we must push for binding environmental standards along the entire supply chain, from mine to processing," said UBA's President Maria Krautzberger. New requirements must become the second pillar of ensuring raw material supply, next to recycling. If not, Germany will be unable to meet its future demand for resources from environmentally sound sources. Germany is one of the world's largest importers of raw materials. It ranks fifth in demand for aluminium, lead, copper and tin, and sixth in demand for steel (2017 figures). Forecasts by the OECD predict that worldwide demand for metals will nearly triple by 2060, compared to 2011.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Umweltbundesamt Hauptsitz

Wörlitzer Platz 1
06844 Dessau-Roßlau
Germany