The extractive industry – oil, gas and mining – drives economic growth across the world. However, these benefits come at a cost. Greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and biodiversity loss are just some of the threats extraction poses to human health and the environment. Extractive activities can also fuel conflicts and threaten human rights if certain safeguards are not met or if they are poorly managed. By bringing together the key players and encouraging sustainable practices, UN Environment works to reduce these threats, boost economies and support livelihoods. In doing so, we back international processes such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
There is increasing momentum in private sector and government circles to improve environmental performance of the extractive industry. A number of companies are striving to develop robust environmental practices, industry associations have developed and disseminated best practice guidance on environmental management and some companies have committed to avoid operating in natural World Heritage Sites. Governments, meanwhile, are engaging with environmental experts to improve the policy and regulatory frameworks that govern the sector. However, the data suggests the need for accelerated action.
The world relies heavily on natural resource exploitation, and demand is growing.
- Mineral extraction plays a dominant role in the economies of 81 countries, which account for a quarter of global GDP, half the world’s population and nearly 70 per cent of those in extreme poverty.
- The formal mining sector employs more than 3.7 million workers. Up to 100 million people make a living from artisanal mining. In the informal sector, 10-15 million miners are estimated to be engaged in artisanal gold mining in more than 70 countries, creating approximately 1600 tonnes per year of mercury emissions and releases to the environment.
- Between 1998 and 2008, the value of the global natural resource trade rose six times, from US$0.6 trillion to US$3.7 trillion. If current trends continue, the world will require 180 billion tonnes of material every year to meet demand by 2050, including for green technologies. This is almost three times current levels.
Poor management in the extractive sector damages the environment and human health.
- Pollution: Extensive pollution from over 50 years of oil operations in Nigeria’s Ogoniland region had a grave impact on the environment. In many locations, public health was threatened by contaminated drinking water and carcinogens.
- Industrial accidents: In Romania in 2000, 100,000 cubic metres of cyanide-contaminated water escaped from a gold mine reservoir into rivers, killing up to 80 per cent of aquatic life in some areas.
- Resource consumption: Roughly 70 per cent of the mining operations of the world’s six biggest companies are in countries facing water stress. In Mongolia, an estimated 852 rivers and over 1,000 lakes have dried up as a result of mining operations at head waters.
- Social issues and conflict: Demand for tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold has sparked a roaring trade in “conflict minerals” in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Up to 40,000 children work in the mines of the copper belt.
- Biodiversity: Oil and gas contract blocks cover 20 per cent of identified areas of biodiversity importance in Africa, resulting in potential tension between the need to extract minerals and society’s desire to protect biodiversity and the vital ecosystem services flowing from it.
UN ENVIRONMENT’S VISION
Improving the environmental performance of the industry, including artisanal and small-scale mining, is vital to safeguarding human health and well-being. While working towards a global transition from fossil fuels toward greener and more inclusive economic models, UN Environment supports positive change in the extractive sector’s governance and business practices. We aim to make minerals, oil and gas work for all by addressing climate change, water use, biodiversity, deforestation, energy demand and human health issues while maximizing benefits for people.
We work in five core areas – strengthening laws and institutions; informing policy with sicence; promoting innovation and the circular economy; harnessing public and private financing; and supporting better planning. Through all this work, we aim to achieve the following objectives:
- Countries take action to meet commitments under environmental global and regional agreements and adopt adequate regulatory frameworks at the national level.
- Governments, the private sector and other parties can access and use quality information and data for decision-making and monitoring.
- The private and financial sectors internalize risks and externalities related to extractive activities and adopt safer, smarter and more inclusive practices.
- Resource efficiency is enhanced is enhanced in value chains for sustainable production and consumption.
- Conflicts are reduced by improved extractive industries’ governance, inclusive decision-making and participatory monitoring of natural resources projects.
- Extractive operations are less polluting for the environment and benefit people’s health and well-being.