Recent years have seen growing levels of exploitation and production of raw materials in remote, ecologically sensitive or politically unstable regions where environmental and social standards are either lacking or poorly implemented. At the same time, there has also been an increase in the mining of ore with low metal content, which often involves greater use of energy, water and chemicals and has a more severe impact on the environment.
The main focus of this research project is the environmental impact caused by the exploration, extraction, dressing, smelting and transport of metal raw materials. Environmental aspects cannot, however, be viewed separately from social and economic aspects – especially in developing and newly industrialised countries – as aside from its negative impacts, the raw materials sector also creates major opportunities for social and economic development in the producing countries. Using these challenges as its starting point, adelphi joined forces with the University of Leoben and MinPol and carried out the research project “Approaches to reducing negative environmental and social impacts in the production of metal raw materials” (abbreviated as: UmSoRess) for the German Environment Agency.
The first stage of the project involved analysing and documenting the impacts of raw material production on the environment, society and the economy, using 13 case studies on the metals gold, copper, aluminium, rare earth elements and tin. The goal of the case studies was to gain a better understanding of the connections between the environmental and social impacts of producing different metals in the context of various countries with various problems. Particularly relevant and representative cases (mines, countries) were selected according to a set of criteria in order to cover the broadest and most balanced spectrum possible of potential negative environmental and social impacts as well as a range of governance contexts. This provided a basis for analysing 42 standards and approaches – either existing or under development – which aim to improve the environmental and social conditions in the mining sector. The goal of this analysis was to assess the impact of standards, to pinpoint specific strengths and weaknesses and to identify lessons learned and best practices. These findings were used to develop specific policy recommendations to improve environmental and social standards.