Mineral resource governance in the 21st century: gearing extractive industries towards sustainable development

The UN International Resource Panel (IRP) sets out how we can ensure that international governance of our natural resources becomes intertwined with vital efforts to deliver on sustainability goals.

 IRP (2020). Ayuk, E. T., Pedro, A. M., Ekins, P., Gatune, J., Milligan, B., Oberle B., Christmann, P., Ali, S., Kumar, S. V, Bringezu, S., Acquatella, J., Bernaudat, L., Bodouroglou, C., Brooks, S., Buergi Bonanomi, E., Clement, J., Collins, N., Davis, K., Davy, A., Dawkins, K., Dom, A., Eslamishoar, F., Franks, D., Hamor, T., Jensen, D., Lahiri-Dutt, K., Mancini, L., Nuss, P., Petersen, I., Sanders, A. R. D. A Report by the International Resource Panel. United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi, Kenya.


In its paper Mineral Resource Governance in the 21st Century, the UN International Resource Panel (IRP) sets out sensible and ambitious ways to seize the opportunity, rest the playing field and ensure that international governance of our natural resources becomes intertwined with vital efforts to deliver on sustainability goals, namely the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Of course, this won’t be easy. It will require focus and leadership at all levels – from international bodies and national governments to industry leaders – if we are to avoid the mistakes of centuries past.

Whilst the global agenda has shifted notably in recent years towards efforts to become less resource intensive, a growing world population[1] and increase in urbanisation[2]  and indeed the transition to the cleaner greener energy sources we need mean that natural, mineral resources will continue to be needed. Moves towards a circular economy will help to reduce the amount of virgin material we need to extract from the earth, but as a World Economic Forum scenario cited in this report[3] shows, mining will not disappear.

The paper points out the fact that “many of today’s wealthiest countries were built on the back of natural resources”. But we know from history that this was inequitable, and the most resource rich countries have not benefitted as they should have done. There have also been historic and ongoing struggles with issues such as corruption. But we now have an opportunity to ensure that the wealth created by mineral extraction can be distributed fairly, by building a system with sustainable development and growth at its heart.

The IRP’s analysis finds more than 80 disparate existing frameworks and initiatives for the governance of mineral resources exist. The challenge for policymakers will be to achieve a more streamlined global framework for governance and sustainability of the extractive sector.

This is an ambitious challenge to face, not least at a time of rising global protectionism and strained diplomatic relationships between the world’s biggest powers, but it’s one that national governments and international bodies must grab by the horns.

Consolidating and integrating a complicated web of frameworks – some mandatory, many voluntary, ranging from regional to international jurisdiction – into a much more effective framework would make an outcome where we actively advance and complement, not hinder, global sustainability goals  when extracting the minerals we need to power our green revolution and growing population, far more likely. One suggestion to achieve this set out in the report is the creation of an International Mineral Agency

Building the frameworks needed standardise and harmonise such a complex regulatory area will firmly encourage governments and industry to make smart decisions about what choices we make to get the minerals we need, whilst keeping the precautionary principle and UN Sustainability Goals firmly in mind.

The next decade and beyond provides many challenges in this area but also new opportunities. This report makes clear that we must step back and assess the most joined up and effective way to govern the secure supply of mineral resources humankind needs to survive and thrive, protecting our quality of life whilst, most crucially, improving that of the those in least developed nations.

[1] UN World Population Prospects 2019

[2] UN World Urbanization Prospects 2018

[3] Mineral Resource Governance in the 21st Century, pg 126