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UNCTAD revamping old NRIE proposal for developing countries to digitalize and share data on natural resources

Demand for energy transition minerals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper is escalating. For example, the demand for copper in clean energy systems is forecast to increase from 23% of total demand across all applications to more than 42% by 2050, according to UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) calculations based on data from the International Energy Agency.

But if copper’s production continues at its current rate, the burgeoning demand won’t be met, creating a significant gap that needs to be addressed to keep global warming to no more than 1.5°C, in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change.

To meet the increasing demand, countries need to explore new resources abundant in high-grade mineral ores and attract investments into the sector, among other essential measures. UNCTAD suggests that technology and data can identify resources that traditional geologists might overlook and assist miners in determining optimal drilling locations.

For example, in Zambia, a private company has used artificial intelligence to generate geological maps of the Earth’s crust, resulting in the discovery of a large-scale high-grade copper deposit.

The company analyzed multiple data streams, ranging from historical drilling data to satellite imagery, enhancing the identification of potential new deposits.

The breakthrough in Zambia’s exploration of new copper resources shows how developing countries can use innovative approaches to discover new reserves of critical minerals and help bridge the gap between supply and demand, UNCTAD said.

However, many developing countries lack the reliable data needed to attract investments into their undiscovered minerals. One solution, first proposed by UNCTAD in 2009, is the creation of an international network for digitalizing and sharing data to facilitate the discovery of new natural resources.

UNCTAD’s initiative, known as the Natural Resources Information Exchange (NRIE), aimed to create a repository of digital information, focusing on geoscientific historical data.

The initiative previously stalled due to technical gaps in some of the potential beneficiary countries and the complexities of legal frameworks and regulations relating to data ownership, access rights and confidentiality.

UNCTAD is now revamping the initiative with an emphasis on strengthening the capacity of countries to manage their wealth of data. The new initiative could assist mineral-rich countries in Africa and elsewhere to create their own natural resource data banks to capture the untapped value from geosciences information to optimize natural resource development and management, UNCTAD suggests.

These data banks would include a range of digitalized historical mineral data, such as:

  • Old maps and information on rock formations, mineral composition and geological structures.

  • Exploration data comprising drilling results, geophysical surveys and geochemical analysis.

  • Production data detailing quantities extracted, grades of ore and production methods.

  • Environmental data such as water quality assessment, air quality monitoring and biodiversity surveys.

UNCTAD advocates for a collaborative and inclusive approach involving governments, companies and institutions with geoscientific archives working together to develop natural resources data banks.

It will support beneficiary countries in developing their capacity to digitalize and organize their historical mineral data. The initiative would facilitate easy access, search and retrieval of archived information through digital databases and artificial intelligence as demonstrated in recent efforts in Zambia. It will also enhance the efficiency of data governance by providing more comprehensive and precise datasets. This could improve decision-making among policymakers, government agencies and industry stakeholders regarding resource allocation.

Furthermore, developing countries can bolster their capacity to attract investments, which could spur economic growth and contribute to meeting the global demand for critical energy transition minerals in a sustainable manner.

According to UNCTAD, it’s also essential to ensure the soaring demand for critical energy transition minerals doesn’t further entrench countries’ dependence on commodities for their export earnings. Such dependence leaves countries vulnerable to market price fluctuations and global economic shocks. It’s also linked to lower socioeconomic development.


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