The UN describes its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a ‘blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all’. Each Goal is framed as a high-level objective and is accompanied by a series of targets aimed at policymakers and industry.
The SDGs were adopted in 2016, replacing the Millennium Development Goals which had underpinned the UN’s strategy since 2000.
The SDGs address global challenges including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. It is hoped they will be achieved by 2030.
The goals are interconnected and they all intersect with mineral extraction to some degree, but for certain Goals, the mineral supply chain is of central importance.
SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production
SDG 12 states that: “sustainable consumption and production is about doing more and better with less. It is also about decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation, increasing resource efficiency and promoting sustainable lifestyles”.
The concept of decoupling is central to the debate about how the global minerals industry should evolve. In its ultimate and purest form, decoupling implies a fully circular economy where, thanks to vastly expanded recycling and a range of other strategies, there is sufficient material in circulation to obviate the need for further mining.
The debate is less about whether the goal of a circular economy is a good one – few would dispute that it is – and more about how it can be achieved, the timescales involved and the trade-offs required along the way.
SDG 13: Climate action and SDG 7: Affordable, Reliable and Sustainable Energy for All
The transition from fossil fuels to clean energy is central to achieving SDG 13, but there’s a problem. Whereas our current energy system relies in large part on oil and gas, renewable energy technologies such as wind, solar and energy storage, rely on another natural resource – minerals. Specifically metals including nickel, manganese, cobalt, and copper.
Estimates vary as to how much additional mineral resource will be required to meet climate change targets, but the task is complicated by the fact that the global economy continues to grow and the world’s population continues to urbanise – placing significant further strain on supply.
SDG 7 calls for clean, affordable and reliable energy to all by 2030. (Between 2000 to 2016, the proportion of the global population with access to electricity increased from 78 per cent to 87 per cent). The challenge is how to accomplish this goal in a way which is consistent with other SDGs.
Put simply, the SDGs call for more economic benefits to be delivered to more people whilst simultaneously reducing the impact of that activity on the planet and its people. This calls for ingenuity and innovation as well as policy intervention and behaviour change.