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Supplying the Green Transition Must Be Fast and Fair

Achieving global climate goals will require a quantum leap in investments to secure sufficient supplies of key minerals needed for clean-energy technologies. But while these inputs can greatly accelerate emission-reduction efforts, protecting human rights when extracting them is an essential condition for climate justice.

DUBLIN – Can we avert climate catastrophe without unleashing a tsunami of human-rights abuses? Policymakers, investors, CEOs, and the boards of mining firms should be seeking – and delivering – positive answers to that question. Instead, the failure to engage with human-rights concerns could derail our already faltering journey to a low-carbon world.

At the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow last November, governments and much of the investment community reaffirmed their commitment to the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Breaching that accord’s global-warming threshold of 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels will expose current and future generations to the deadly effects of climate breakdown. To avoid a collision with Earth’s ecological boundaries, we need a warp-speed acceleration in the transition to a zero-carbon pathway, starting with halving carbon dioxide emissions this decade.

Achieving that target will require a quantum leap in investments to secure sufficient supplies of so-called transition minerals. Clean-energy technologies such as solar plants, wind farms, and electric vehicles are mineral-intensive. Motors and turbines need nickel, chromium, manganese, and rare earths. New electricity networks require vast quantities of copper wire. Electric-vehicle batteries need lithium and nickel. The International Energy Agency estimates that reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century will require a six-fold increase in mineral inputs, and a 40-fold increase in lithium supply.

Policymakers and investors have slowly woken up to the fact that shortages of transition minerals pose a real and present danger to global climate goals. With demand outstripping supply, prices are surging. Mining companies are desperately seeking new sources of minerals – witness Rio Tinto’s recent acquisition of a lithium project in Argentina, BHP’s investments in Ecuadorean copper and Tanzanian nickel projects, and Glencore’s investments in African copper and cobalt. Larry Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, the world’s largest money manager, anticipates a transition-mineral investment boom that “is going to be large and […] going to be multiple years of investing.”

Therein lies both an opportunity and a threat. The opportunity is for governments, investors, mining companies, and civil-society organizations to come together to develop new investment models aimed at supplying a renewable-energy revolution while building shared prosperity, public trust, and strengthened governance. The threat is that we fail to protect the human rights of vulnerable communities in the transition-minerals boom, with an investment surge instead fueling the destruction of livelihoods, environmental damage, and a global wave of land and water grabs by multinational companies.

Anyone doubting the scale of that threat should consult the Transition Minerals Tracker compiled by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. The tracker documents 61 credible new allegations of human-rights abuses in the previous year, including the erosion of land rights, toxic pollution, the diversion of scarce water resources, and attacks on local communities and human-rights defenders. Companies featuring prominently in the charge sheets of the tracker database include Glencore, Anglo American, China Minmetals, and Rio Tinto.

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I was quite shocked to see that corporations embracing the green economy were committing human-rights abuses. But perhaps none of this should come as a surprise, given that deposits of many transition minerals are concentrated in countries with notoriously poor governance.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the world’s largest source of cobalt and a major supplier of copper, mining is associated with child labor, corruption, and widespread violence. Indonesia, the world’s top nickel producer, has a weak record on protecting communities from mining pollution. Lithium extraction in Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia has pitted local communities seeking to defend scarce desert water resources against mining companies that use water-intensive extraction methods and ride roughshod over land rights.

As a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, I am well aware of the challenges facing mining firms and the wider investment community. Extracting minerals while protecting the environment and respecting human rights is an inherently difficult balancing act, not least when governments fail to act on their responsibilities.

Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing is not filling the void. Ubiquitous greenwashing aside, attention has focused almost entirely on decarbonization and the “E” of the acronym. Social criteria – including human rights – have been ignored, exposing communities to the threat of systemic rights violations, and investors to reputational risks.

Human rights should be put at the center of ESG investment. The Investor Alliance for Human Rights, a group of over 200 firms representing more than $10 trillion in assets, has called for stronger regulatory measures, including mandatory human-rights and environmental due diligence consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The European Commission’s proposed directive on corporate sustainability due diligence, which would impose obligations – with potential penalties – on companies to monitor their value chains, promises to spur movement in the right direction.

Mining companies and transition-minerals investors should be at the forefront of efforts to strengthen human-rights protection. Board members of mining companies should ensure that these firms’ corporate cultures and practices reflect the human-rights principles that most of them claim to endorse. These include deep engagement with affected communities and respect for their prior informed consent, due diligence in reporting on supply chains, and access to remedies when harm occurs.

Ahead of the COP27 climate summit in Egypt this November, I will be calling on governments, mining companies, investors, financial regulators, and civil-society organizations to agree on a shared agenda for a low-carbon transition that is both fast and fair. While increased supplies of transition minerals can greatly accelerate emission-reduction efforts, protecting human rights is an essential condition for climate justice.