Geoscientists should play a more active role in shaping public discourse, policies

Geoscientists could help shape the geopolitical future of African countries, says non-executive director of Tullow Oil and The Metals Company Sheila Khama, who is also a former CEO of De Beers Botswana and a former extractive policy advisor to the World Bank.

In her keynote address on the second day of the 2022 Geoscience Council Summit, she noted that “the geopolitics of decarbonization is center stage”, and that geoscience actors will play a central role in the progress of the extraction of the necessary minerals. for the energy transition.

“When I think about the role of geoscience in sustainable development, one of the things that I think we very rarely have [consider] as a country is why we want to mine certain minerals and at what rate. This is often left to private companies looking for return on investment, not intergenerational value or intergenerational access.

“I feel a lot more can be done to help the government engage with the private sector and come to some kind of consensus on the rate of extraction, the timing of extraction and the volume of [minerals] extracted, to ensure that the resources can be used for intergenerational economic development. And I think no one is better placed than geoscientists to be able to help with that kind of information.

She explained that specialists in geoscience disciplines must place themselves in the public discourse and empower the public by providing knowledge and influencing progressive thinking.

“At the moment, there are many discussions on the notion of critical minerals. I feel like most people have no idea what critical minerals are and why a mineral becomes critical. Many people don’t understand that the criticality of minerals is very time specific; it’s very technology-specific; it’s very specific to the request; and that can change.

She suggested that helping the public understand terminology that is popping up in the mainstream could be very important in framing conversations about mining, the circular economy, emerging decarbonization technologies, and the economic importance of carbon. mining.

“A lot of people think you can decarbonize without using minerals. [They] resent the volume of minerals that still need to be mined before we can meet our current demand, let alone future demand. Most people talk about circular economy and have no idea what it means. [They] talking about recycling, not realizing that there are not enough minerals today that can be recycled to meet existing demand.

“The result of this misunderstanding is a tension in public discourse, where people think mining is the enemy.”

Khama said it’s up to the geoscience community to be part of “a wave of information” that will hopefully lead to the right policies.

“Policies are made by politicians who thrive on positive public opinion. [opinion].” She stressed that geoscientists should therefore try to steer public opinion by actively engaging with and informing the public.

Furthermore, she noted that this seems counterproductive, that one of the key strengths of the region is its mining potential, and yet, “when the representatives of African governments enter into negotiations, you don’t see that they are surrounded by scientific expertise”. , they just talk off the cuff.

She called for more research to be conducted on critical minerals, rare earths and other minerals that are integral to the digital economy, adding that “we need to move from the general to the specific”, prioritizing activities that advance specific results rather than in the hope of attracting broad exploration expenditures.

She suggested that geoscientists could also help governments understand that not all deposits speak to big mining companies and could help advocate for specific legislation for juniors and small-scale miners.

“Most mining laws on the African continent are written to regulate large mining companies. It is a defect. There are countries, for example, in the Lake District, like Rwanda, but also countries like Kenya and Malawi, which have a lot of minerals, but in quantities that are not going to attract big players.

Furthermore, she suggested that the geoscience community has overlooked artisanal mining, adding that the community could be crucial in helping to bring “order” to artisanal and small-scale miners.

“I feel that there are certain deposits that lend themselves to safe exploitation by artisanal miners. Some deposits lend themselves to artisanal mining economically. Your profession could help countries map these deposits safely.

She said the challenge with geoscientists avoiding the subject of artisanal mining is that it becomes a free-for-all. The current situation ensures that “the exploitation of these resources, both in the physical and economic sense, is not optimal”.

“There is no proof of claim. No one has a sense of [size of the] deposit or rank. They’re just people swimming in the dark. I think as we move forward it’s worth thinking about what contribution you can make to a better understanding of the geological profile of certain high-grade minerals and trying to enable governments to zone those resources in a way so that they can be properly allocated.

She stated her belief that the geoscience community could fundamentally “save the bottom line of global trade”.

“You could shape the outcome of geopolitics. You could shape the balance of power between Africa, the United States, China and Europe, but your voice, it seems to me, is very absent.

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