UNEA6:  Potential Breakthrough for global mineral resource governance?

The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Sixth Environmental Assembly (UNEA6) is scheduled to take place in Nairobi, Kenya from 26 February to 1 March. A handful of resolutions are slated for discussion, most notably, an initiative spearheaded by the Swiss government addressing the dimensions of minerals and metals management and an EU proposal on enhancing circular economy practices for sustainable production and consumption.

What is the Swiss proposal about? 

In a world where demand for materials continues to escalate, fostering cooperation and coordination among nations becomes paramount. The Swiss government’s resolution highlights the central role of metal and mineral management in achieving the goals of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as well as the Paris Agreement and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. It underscores the critical nexus between the escalating demand for metals and minerals and key global trends such as the energy transition, digital transformation, urbanisation, and militarisation. These technologies are driving a surge in demand for resources, which if not done right, will likely come at the cost of sustainable development goals. 

With a focus on the whole life cycle of metals and minerals, the resolution aims to ensure the sustainability of supply chains by combatting adverse effects of mining and promoting circular economy practices, as well as ensuring the right of Indigenous Peoples. It also wants to establish an expert group that would develop non-prescriptive recommendations on the best circular practices and measures to discipline the extractive industry within the existing social and environmental frameworks. 

The EU resolution for UNEA-6: key areas for improvement 

In turn, the EU proposed a resolution on circular economy, and it is currently being revised, building upon its earlier iteration from UNEA-5. The resolution focuses on the importance of achieving sustainable consumption patterns and tackling climate change so that human consumption can remain within planetary boundaries. 

With the global circular economy is shrinking, the EU resolution emphasises the need for countries around the world to exchange experiences and knowledge, and to ensure long-term cooperation in implementing circular economy practices. To do so, countries should develop national strategies on circularity and push for the improvement in the design of products so they can be repair, reused and easier to recycle. 

The EU resolution demonstrates a good intention to place the topic of the circular economy higher on the UNEA agenda, which the EEB will readily support. Nevertheless, to truly address global resource inequalities and impacts of resource extraction, reduction of demand from major economies needs to be at the forefront.  

The EEB, along with Earthworks and the Heinrich Boll Foundation will be at UNEA6 and will hold a side event. The event will focus on how to address the rising demand for raw materials driven by all major sectors, including the digital and energy transition. As part of the discussions, we will delve into the main issues with primary extraction, including the environmental and human rights impacts, mining waste, and the all-too-common lack of consent from indigenous peoples and local communities. Additionally, we will also focus on the need to delineate no-go zones for extraction companies, as some ecosystems such as the deep-sea and biodiversity rich regions are too precarious to be used for resource extraction or processing.  

The debate will have two main focuses: addressing the accessibility of the root causes of issues with accessibility of resources and working towards a sufficiency framework, as well as the fair distribution of resources, will be at the core of the debate on the circular economy and minerals resolutions. Currently, the EU uses far, more than its fair share of resources. In metals alone, the EU uses around a quarter of the earth’s metals and minerals while only making 6% of the world’s population, and this is only projected to worsen in the coming decades with repercussions for ecological systems and communities on the ground. 

We will welcome the International Resource Panel and invite governments representatives working proactively on the two resolutions to speak about their contributions towards research resource sufficiency with the hope they will inspire other countries to do the same and to support the new resolution. 

The road ahead 

While the two resolutions are non-binding and represent a form of soft law, they set up a framework for countries to collaborate on circular economy practices and resource governance, helping them integrate new policies within their national legislature. The Plastic Pollutions Treaty exemplifies the potential for reaching agreements that yield more legally binding outcomes. Recognizing this immense potential, the EEB and partner organisations are committed to encouraging member states to strive for greater ambitions in both texts during this biannual assembly.