Artisanal and small-scale mining and the low-carbon transition: challenges and opportunities

Tim Laing, Avanti Pinto

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The transition to a low-carbon economy will require an unprecedented change to the energy system. The renewable and energy storage technologies that need to be built are fundamentally different from the ones that will be replaced. They require a greater amount and diversity of metals and minerals than the technologies that they are replacing. This higher demand for materials is likely to require a sharp expansion in the mining and production of a range of materials. The materiality of the low-carbon transition has reopened the historic concept of critical materials, with the EU and the US issuing lists of materials for which specific action is required to ensure security of supply. The supply of a wide range of these materials is met, in part, through artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) – an industry of rapidly growing importance across many parts of the world. This paper provides the first mapping in the literature of the intersect between critical minerals and ASM production – finding significant overlap between the two concepts. It then examines the implications of this overlap for both ASM and for the low-carbon transition – using examples of copper, cobalt and gold production. The increased demand for critical minerals could lead to an increased production from ASM, with potential environmental and social consequences. Since the pace of energy transitions vary across countries, the demand for critical minerals would also vary in accordance with the countries’ development perspective. This has a further effect on either advancing towards or retreating away from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the paper includes a discussion of the same. The presence of ASM in supply-chains for low-carbon technologies could bring risks to the transition, especially in terms of reputational issues. On the other-hand increased demand could boost employment through ASM, raising incomes for rural workers, whilst the adaptability of ASM production could help solve supply bottlenecks in some material production. This has implications on the vertical and horizontal value chain linkages between the mines and final minerals which then questions the capacity of the country. This uncertainty highlights the importance of understanding the challenges and benefits that could accrue from the overlap between ASM and critical minerals.
Original languageEnglish
Article number103563
Number of pages13
JournalEnvironmental Science & Policy
Publication statusPublished - 29 Aug 2023


  • Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining
  • Low-carbon transition


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