Canada joins new sustainable mining alliance at COP15

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Canada and other G7 countries have formed a new alliance to compel mining companies to adopt more environmentally sustainable and socially responsible standards as they ramp up critical mineral supply chains.

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced the agreement among countries that are trying to reduce China’s dominance in the critical mineral field on Monday at the COP15 biodiversity talks in Montreal.

Critical minerals refer to about three dozen metals and minerals needed for most modern technology, including laptops and cellphones. But they are also essential to rechargeable batteries used in electric vehicles, as well as energy storage, and renewable energy production in solar panels and wind turbines.

The World Bank predicted in 2020 that demand for critical minerals, including lithium, copper, nickel, graphite and rare earth elements, will rise 500 per cent by 2050.

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Wilkinson has said many times the transition to net-zero emissions and a 100 per cent clean energy electricity grid, will not happen without expanding critical mineral mining.

The announcement came three days after Wilkinson published Canada’s critical mineral strategy, which aims to expand Canada’s critical mineral production in a way that is environmentally sustainable, ensures Indigenous equity and improves global security.

Canada and the United States are among the western democracies that have made clear China cannot be allowed to dominate critical minerals in a way that gives it political influence similar to Russia’s leverage over oil and gas exports to Europe.

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China is the clear dominant player in critical minerals, particularly in the refining and processing and manufacturing uses.

All G7 countries but Italy have joined the alliance, as has Australia.

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The Canadian strategy is focused only on domestic mining, and Wilkinson acknowledged it is silent on the sustainability of raw materials that are mined elsewhere and brought to Canada for further processing or used in the manufacturing of batteries.

The alliance is an attempt to extend the Canadian strategy globally, though it is not clear how heavy-handed Canada or any of the others will be about ensuring imported critical minerals follow the same environmental and social standards as those mined at home.

It also does not specify what role the alliance will play in ensuring their own companies follow the standards when operating on foreign soil. Canada’s mining companies have a good reputation for sustainable mining practices at home, but internationally it is a different story. There have been several lawsuits filed against Canadian companies for environmental damage, health impacts and human rights violations in other countries.

The alliance members are also not clear on whether they will limit exports of raw materials mined in their territories to China. Canada has already begun enforcing a new policy to limit the role state-owned enterprises in non-democratic countries play in Canadian critical minerals, forcing three Chinese companies to sell their ownership stakes in some small Canadian mining developments.

But there are many more, including the only currently producing lithium mine in Canada, which is in Manitoba.

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Wilkinson told The Canadian Press in an interview Friday that the Liberal government is “very live” to concerns about exporting too much raw material to China for refining, processing and use in manufacturing, and that the issue is being discussed.

The COP15 nature talks are an effort by most countries in the world to agree to policies that will both halt and repair the destruction that human activities, including mining, have brought on global ecosystems and wild species. Some environmental advocates aren’t pleased the Canadian government is announcing in the middle of the event a strategy that expands mining.

Caroline Brouillette, national policy director at the Climate Action Network Canada, said the strategy is disconnected from conversations happening at COP15 and reinforces “our dependence on destructive business models that exhaust resources and harm communities.”

— Mia Rabson in Ottawa and Jacob Serebrin in Montreal.

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