WWF released the 2014 edition of the Living Planet Report a few weeks back, and the news wasn’t good. Global wildlife populations have declined by more than half in just 40 years, and humanity’s ecological footprint – the impact of the products and services we take from nature – continues to increase.
These facts tell us that “business as usual” is trashing the planet, and “conservation as usual” isn’t turning the tide. Both have to change, and that means historical opponents have to find common ground.
Which is why I accepted an invitation to Reykjavik, Iceland, for the International Council on Mining and Metals’ (ICMM) meeting on mining and Arctic development.
Without question, mining can be a dirty business. Large scale or small, it can threaten the special places and productive ecosystems WWF works to protect – from coral reefs in the Pacific to tiger habitat in India, tributaries of the Amazon to the fish-rich waters of the Arctic. My colleagues around the world know that mining’s threats are real, but we also know the potential benefits.
Mining can drive the economies of developing countries, pulling millions out of poverty and providing essential materials for the more sustainable economies we envision for the future. It’s a question of balancing the potential for profit with the appropriateness of some mining. Knowing what we know about climate change, it is not appropriate to continue to mine coal or to drill for oil in evermore remote locations. Likewise, knowing what we know about the fragility of some ecosystems, it is not appropriate to open them up to intensive human activity such as mining.
I was heartened at the ICMM meeting to learn that conservationists aren’t the only ones seeking the right balance. The mining industry itself is taking stock and asking how it can ensure that responsible practice is the non-negotiable baseline, and economic, environmental and social sustainability is the hallmark of best practice.
These questions of appropriateness, responsible practice and sustainability are particularly acute in the Arctic. The conditions that make the Arctic, its species and its communities special are the very reasons that any extractive activity is doubly risky. Extreme temperatures, unstable ice, limited infrastructure and workforce, and poor visibility make it more difficult to identify, approach, contain and clean up any spills or other accidents, leaving these special and highly vulnerable places unprotected.
WWF believes some parts of the Arctic – places where it has already been established that conservation value and the human use of biological resources are so valuable that risks posed by extractives would not be acceptable – should be declared off limits to extractives activity. These include areas such as the Lofoten/Vesteralen islands of Norway, Bristol Bay, Alaska, and west Kamchatka, Russia.
More generally, I emphasized three recommendations to ICMM members:
- Declare areas of particular sensitivity, vulnerability or value off limits to mining activity.
- In return for the privilege of being allowed to mine, reinvest some revenue from this natural capital into better protection of biodiversity and ecosystems, and the services they provide.
- Adopt a hierarchy of decision making that ensures that mining will only occur where the environment can tolerate it and impacts can be effectively managed.
These recommendations were received in the same cooperative spirit that has characterized WWF’s interaction with ICMM over the past decade.
I don’t claim that all or even most mining companies are following industry best practice yet, nor do I think this recent interest in sustainability is motivated by altruism. What I do see is an industry that faces real business risk in failing to manage required resources, such as fresh water, or losing its social license to operate because of unacceptable environmental impacts.
It is this bottom-line risk that is prompting unprecedented efforts to improve sustainability performance, and this might be the shift from “business as usual” that helps reverse the worrying trends reported in the Living Planet Report. WWF’s willingness to work with ICMM in support of these efforts might also be part of the needed shift from “conservation as usual.”