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Addressing challenges and embracing opportunities in the raw materials sector

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The raw materials sector stands at the forefront of the 21st-century global challenges and opportunities, playing a pivotal role in the transitions essential for mitigating and adapting to climate change in energy, transport, and digital realms. However, this sector is under significant pressure from consumers, investors, and regulators who are increasingly demanding higher sustainability and responsibility standards. The critical question emerges: How can the raw materials sector not only meet these demands but also leverage them as opportunities for innovation and differentiation?

Recently, the International Roundtable on Materials Criticality (IRTC) 2024 in Torino, Italy, hosted a workshop organized by UNECE addressing this very question. Titled “Emerging Sustainability Standards: Challenges and Opportunities for Raw Materials in a Changing World,” the workshop brought together experts, practitioners, and stakeholders from various fields to delve into the latest developments and trends in sustainability standards and their implications for the raw materials sector.

To ensure sustainable and integrated resource management, UNECE has developed two vital tools: the United Nations Framework Classification for Resources (UNFC) and the United Nations Resource Management System (UNRMS). UNFC unifies the classification and reporting of resources based on social, environmental, and economic viability, technical feasibility, and confidence in resource estimates. On the other hand, UNRMS is a voluntary global standard promoting sustainable resource management aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The framework of UNRMS comprises 12 fundamental principles, including responsibility to the planet, social contract on natural resources, value addition, circularity, and transparency. It also advocates for the measurement and reporting of environmental and social performance indicators.

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“Sustainability is not only a challenge but also an opportunity for the raw materials sector,” asserts Charlotte Griffiths, Chief of the Resources Management Section at UNECE. She emphasizes the commitment of UNECE to supporting the sector in achieving sustainability and integrated resource management through tools like UNFC and UNRMS.

For instance, in Albania, the application of these sustainability pillars is making a tangible impact by unlocking geothermal energy and creating a roadmap for its sustainable utilization.

Addressing the growing demands and expectations from various stakeholders, the raw materials sector needs to adopt global standards to guide and benchmark its sustainability performance. International Standards Organization (ISO) aims to contribute by developing industry-applicable standards for different aspects of sustainability, providing guidance, best practices, and benchmarks. However, this endeavor poses challenges, including engaging diverse stakeholders, harmonizing with existing standards and frameworks, and addressing the complexity of the raw materials sector, notes Michael Haschke, Chair Designate of ISO PC 348 Sustainable Raw Materials and member of the Expert Group on Resource Management.

Various standards and initiatives relevant to the raw materials sector were discussed during the workshop. Noteworthy examples include the application of UNRMS for critical minerals exploration and a lithium development case study in the UK. OASIS Open Standards were highlighted for their role in making applications interoperable, secure, and scalable, supporting integration with other sectors such as energy, transport, and digital.

The concept of resource servitization under UNRMS aims to shift the sector’s business model from commodity-centric to service-centric, focusing on providing solutions rather than commodities. This approach can contribute to reducing the environmental and social impact of the raw materials sector, fostering customer loyalty, and creating new revenue streams.

Taking a sector-specific perspective, the tin industry has initiated sustainability measures such as the Tin Code to address its unique challenges and opportunities.

In conclusion, sustainability standards present both challenges and opportunities for the raw materials sector. Embracing these standards not only enhances performance and reputation but also contributes to global sustainable development goals. The dynamic, diverse, and interconnected nature of these standards requires alignment and collaboration. Continuous research, dialogue, and action are deemed essential, with UNECE playing a pivotal role in facilitating this ongoing process.

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