This year’s Conference of Parties (COP28) will feature a first-of-its-kind trade day on 4 December 2023 — an unparalleled event in the context of UN climate conferences. The day will highlight the potential for trade to act as a catalyst for climate-smart development, focusing on issues like value-chain decarbonisation and resilience. Significantly, this trade day will include a session on critical minerals.
This inclusion is significant for African countries since they are well endowed with the minerals critical for the energy transition. African countries should therefore capitalise on this opportunity to use their minerals to negotiate access to financing and technologies with developed economies.
Finance and technology are the key components that African countries require to develop industries to fully benefit from their vast mineral reserves. The absence of critical minerals’ discussion at COP has long undermined Africa’s role in climate negotiations and the continent’s role in the energy transition.
The session on critical minerals will aim to forge consensus on the need to foster domestic value-add for the countries producing critical minerals. The session will also seek to increase supply chain resilience and sustainability and to ensure a fairer distribution of the benefits accruing from trade in critical minerals-based products to all participants in the value chain.
The session will thus strengthen Africa’s voice and shape the narrative around the energy transition in a way that benefits African countries, rather than the usual agenda pushed by the global North.
If African countries do not find ways to capitalise on their mineral endowments then they stand to be the losers in any energy transition. Africa’s minerals must be used to grow the continent’s economies and meaningfully benefit its citizens.
It is therefore more important than ever that Africa develops a common vision for its critical minerals and a regional development strategy anchored in these minerals.
Individual countries’ strategies and plans should draw on a common mining vision for Africa and on a prospective Africa’s Green Mineral Strategy (AGMS) to foster regional development based on critical minerals.
Critical minerals are also known as strategic minerals: “critical” and “strategic” labels are often used interchangeably, but not every country defines critical or strategic minerals the same way. Each country’s definition drives its mineral strategies. Generally, these minerals are “strategic” for countries with endowments and “critical” for countries that have no reserves or access.
Critical minerals are required globally to produce key technologies for the energy transition. Examples include the lithium required for batteries, platinum and iridium for electrolysers and fuel cells, and copper for an electricity grid.
Global powers have long moved to secure reserves of these minerals. For instance, China has invested heavily in Africa’s infrastructure through the Belt and Road Initiative in order to set itself up as a trusted partner for African countries and to also ensure infrastructure development around Chinese-owned mines on the continent.
The United States has also invested in the Lobito Corridor — a railway line connecting Zambia and the DRC. The line represents an alternative outlet to export markets for Zambia and DRC, and offers the shortest route between key mining regions in these two countries and the ocean.
These benefits notwithstanding, the two initiatives still represent a framework for extracting and exporting African resources to be used and beneficiated elsewhere while the continent remains engulfed in poverty.
The energy transition will be accompanied by the expansion of mining for critical minerals. An absence of a united voice and strategies in place for these minerals poses risks to all African countries.
The major risk is that the lack of strategies will perpetuate the continuous extraction of minerals for export while communities in those areas suffer atrocities and violence. Mining expansion and the exploitation of communities have resulted in the displacement of millions of people in areas such as the DRC. The ongoing cost of not planning ahead contributes to the humanitarian crisis already unfolding before our eyes.
A regional development strategy for critical minerals must promote local mineral beneficiation and build value chains to create jobs. Working in silos, and negotiations on finance and technologies conducted on an individual country basis, have not yielded any meaningful benefit.
Rather, these modes of operating will only continue to perpetuate the extraction of minerals cheaply in Africa for value addition to be carried out elsewhere.
For an effective regional development strategy around critical minerals, existing mechanisms such as the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement (AfCFTA) must be used to accelerate intra-Africa trade and create a market for finished minerals goods and services. This must be supported by legal frameworks and mining legislation that regulates strategic mineral activities, as well as climate policies aligned with the sustainable development of strategic minerals.
The trade day at COP28 is a step in the right direction for African countries in that it recognises the need for broader cooperation on critical minerals and trade. The UN conference should aim to provide a platform to table key aspects of the energy transition like that of critical minerals. DM