UN investor group takes aim at mining sector’s ESG failings

Launched today (25 January), Global Investor Commission on Mining 2030 has the backing of the UN, the Principles for Responsible Investment and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Global Investor Commission on Mining 2030 is aimed at addressing “systemic risks” faced by the mining industry that could challenge its social license to operate just as its role in providing raw materials for the net zero transition becomes increasingly important.

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The commission, which is chaired by the Church of England Pensions Board with the UN Environment Programme providing advisory support, is seeking backing from major institutional investors, insurers, banks and materials companies to help drive reforms across the mining sector.

It said it would be exploring the potential for new ESG standards for the mining sector, while also setting out practical steps and guidance on how to secure the future of the industry as the global economy’s shift towards net zero emissions accelerates.

A major focus for the commission will be identifying gaps in best practice standards in response to social and economic risks, such as artisanal mining, waste management, biodiversity protection, child labour and the role minerals play in driving conflict, the group explained.

Figures backing the initiative so far include global investor network the Principles for Responsible Investment, as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba.

Chair of the commission Adam Matthews, chief responsible investment officer at the Church of England Pension’s Board, said systemic responses across the entire mining value chain were urgently needed to address escalating reputational, environmental, and geopolitical risks to the sector.

“To achieve net zero requires an expansion of mining,” he said.

“And yet, the industry will not be able to expand without managing inherent systemic risks from tailings dams prone to collapse, to the impact of automation on workforces, to the relationships with artisanal miners and where mining contributes to, or drives conflict.

“These are sector wide issues that require systemic responses if mining is to secure the trust of society to catalyse the flow of capital required for its expansion.”

He added: “Working practically, transparently and in partnership with industry and other stakeholders, the new commission aims to bring the finance and corporate worlds together to ensure the mining industry retains its social license as it scales to meet demand for the low carbon transition.”

The World Bank has forecast a 500% surge in demand for metals and minerals such as lithium, nickel, copper and graphite in order to build the clean technologies needed to hit the climate goals of the Paris Agreement.

The need for a new wave of mining projects has been weaponised by some critics of climate action, who have alleged that clean and green technologies still have a huge impact on the environment.

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Supporters of the net zero transition have countered that increased demand for the minerals and materials used in electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines and other clean technologies will be more than offset by reduced demand for oil, gas and coal.

The overall environmental impact of mining and extractive industries is expected to fall as the net zero transition accelerates.

However, the new commission today warned that a failure to ensure best practices are followed as new mining projects are developed risks undermining the entire net zero transition.

As such, it stressed the critical importance of ensuring mining firms minimise disruption to communities and the environment and do not exacerbate conflicts and geopolitical tensions in regions rich in critical minerals.

David Atkin, chief executive of the PRI, said investors would be key to driving up the ESG credentials of the global mining sector.

“Investors collective efforts can play an important role in driving change in the way corporate practices impact people and communities – and the way the corporate sector can increase their positive social impact as an integral part of their core business strategies,” he said.

The commission said a model for its work is provided by a similar recent investor collaboration, which saw a new Global Standard on Tailings Management negotiated between the mining sector and the UN, with a new Global Institute established to oversee independent auditing of mine site compliance.

Welby said the new Commission launched today “represents a vital opportunity to ensure we can address the many systemic challenges that undermine the social license of the mining sector”.

“Whilst there is good practice in the industry and new leaders emerging, the sector cannot and should not do this alone. It must carry the confidence of many actors if it is to fulfil its future role to society and in providing the minerals for the low carbon transition.

“We have a responsibility to address them together and to do so with a commitment that when we extract, we do no harm to people and the environment.”

The Archbishop added: “Where that harm does occur, we must collectively work towards genuine reconciliation. And we must strive to have a transition that is based upon fairness and justice and not exploitation of the weakest.”

The mining industry is increasingly recognised as both one of the keystones of the net zero transition and one of its biggest risk factors.

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