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Minerals, the Resource Nexus and International Governance

March 1, 2012

bleischwitzThe international community needs to pay more attention to the role of minerals and other critical, lesser-known resources as part of a comprehensive international resource strategy, according to Dr. Raimund Bleischwitz, Transatlantic Academy Fellow and Co-Director, Material Flows and Resource Management, Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy.

During a talk at The Fletcher School, Dr. Bleischwitz posited that “future risks and threats are likely to arise from the nexus of using all natural resources rather than from individual resources alone.”

The looming need for additional sources of energy is well known and amply discussed. What is recognized to a lesser degree is that demand will grow for all resources in the coming years, especially for metal ores and non-metallic minerals.

Dr. Bleischwitz outlined two specific reasons why critical metals are essential to the global economy. First, they are extremely important for renewable energy.  We need copper, steel and concrete in order to produce energy from wind, and rare earth minerals are used to advance the promise of batteries, photovoltaics and wind turbines. Second, they are crucial for the production of consumer technology products. Gallium, indium and tellurium are not well known to consumers, but a careful look at the production chain demonstrates that metal resources such as these three are used to produce countless technology products such as mobile phones and iPads that people regularly use.

During the talk, which was organized as part of CIERP’S Sustainable Development Diplomacy and Governance Program, Dr. Bleischwitz also outlined the complexities with establishing global institutions to regulate such processes and intricate relationships. The interaction between different resources is generally thought of as being mostly within the private sector actors: coal or steel companies managing all parts of the process as part of their business. But, “we shouldn’t forget that someone has to dig up the earth, which is a public good, so it’s not entirely a private sector relationship.”

He described the mineral nexus with water, food and energy in terms of polycentric and multi-level governance, with the outer layer composed of public goods like seas, air and earth, the middle circle containing common pool resources, such as soils, water basins, fish and forests, and the innermost layer of private goods and market transactions. These three concentric circles are governed, respectively, by environmental law, mining and land law, and contracts, international private law and product regulation.

“The point is that it’s challenging to put a legal framework into motion and to imagine how this complexity should be handled in the years to come,” Dr. Bleischwitz explained in summary.

With regards to minerals specifically, Dr. Bleischwitz envisions an important role for international institutions and laid out more precise recommendations. Labeling the current international framework as “too weak,” he called for more principles to be implemented and, in more practical terms, for the creation of an agency devoted to minerals management at the global level. Such an agency could play significant roles with regards to institutionalization of learning, acquiring of data, establishing robust knowledge and training practitioners.

When it comes to metals, Dr. Bleischwitz has previously proposed an international covenant involving both relevant industries and target countries. He sees such an agreement defining the responsibilities of different actors in terms of operation, implementation and evaluation, establishing material stewardship internationally and setting long term goals to increase resource productivity. Critically, this covenant should not be viewed as a loss for mining companies or mining-extracting countries, as it would be an opportunity to establish better efficiency and reduce waste.

Dr. Bleischwitz identified specific “hot spots” he sees as likely candidates for future resource conflicts. These included the South China Sea, related to oil drilling, East Africa, where dam projects along the Nile are putting Egypt under pressure, Yemen, “the first country in the world that will probably have to move its capital because the city will run out of water,” and the Falkland Islands, where shale gas along the coastline has re-ignited the United Kingdom’s and Argentina’s conflict.

During the question-and-answer session that followed his prepared presentation, Dr. Bleischwitz discussed the kinds of crises that might force the international community to implement stronger mineral and metal monitoring systems, the recycling capacity of developing countries and the governance of resources.

-Article by Elia Boggia, MALD candidate F13