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Future supply of raw materials must not repeat the sustainability problems of the past

10/08/2019, JRC

Raw materials play a fundamental role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but their production and consumption can also have negative impacts.
It is essential to ensure sustainable management of raw materials supply, re-use, and recycling. ©flywish – Adobe Stock.com zoom

As our modern economies grow, so does the demand for the raw materials needed to develop technologies for various sectors, including for energy production, transport, strategic industrial sectors and defence.

In many cases, raw materials are fundamental for sustainable development.  For example, they are necessary for the transition to a low-carbon economy, which is at the heart of the European Green Deal foreseen in the political guidelines of for the next European Commission. Moreover, raw materials are required for facilitating a digital economy, and for the defence sector.

The demand for raw materials for such technologies can bring increased autonomy and positive opportunities for communities, including the creation of jobs.

However, if not properly managed, it can also result in negative impacts, such as on the environment, increased pollution, conflicts or use of child labour.

"It is essential to ensure sustainable management of raw materials supply, re-use, and recycling. The transition from fossil fuels to other raw materials must not repeat the same sustainability and security problems that are associated with the fossil-fuels-based model", explains JRC researcher Lucia Mancini.

Taking a global perspective, a fresh JRC report analyses how the production and consumption of non-energy, non-agricultural raw materials affect or contribute to each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Negative impacts linked to extraction phase

The figures suggests that the potential negative impacts can be mostly concentrated in the extraction phase, particularly in the mining sector.

The risk of negative impacts is generally higher in countries with low levels of governance. This can be avoided through appropriate management of supply and recycling operations, and increased levels of governance. 

The report confirms that the forestry sector also has the potential to contribute to several goals through e.g. sustainable forest management practices, or to lead to adverse impacts if sustainable practices are not applied.

"The fossil-fuels-based model has been very unsustainable; the rapid use of non-renewable resources has had many unfortunate environmental and social consequences. Low-carbon technologies are of course one part of the solution, but – if not properly managed – the extraction and production of raw materials to develop and fuel these technologies can have significant negative environmental and social impacts", Lucia explains.

The report highlights that, while efforts must be made to overcome the adverse effects, trade-offs need to be taken into account, as one aspect of raw materials supply can contribute positively to one goal while negatively impacting another.

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