Energy Transition

4 ways to build social acceptance for critical minerals projects

Achieving social acceptance is crucial for large-scale critical minerals projects.

Achieving social acceptance is crucial for large-scale critical minerals projects. Image: iStock/Jacob Wackerhausen

Felipe Valencia-Dongo
Managing Partner, Grupo Estrategia
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This article is part of: Centre for Energy and Materials
  • The energy transition requires critical minerals for renewable energy infrastructure and electric vehicles.
  • Latin America and Africa's vast mineral reserves present opportunities for responsible sourcing, job creation and community benefits.
  • Achieving social acceptance is crucial for large-scale projects, and requires territorial understanding, strategic communication, and strong community and worker engagement.

As the world faces the realities of climate change, the need for an energy transition becomes ever more pressing. This transition requires a substantial increase in the extraction and utilization of critical minerals such as copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt and rare earth elements. The urgency of critical minerals cannot be overstated: Electric vehicles, for instance, demand 2.4 times more copper and six times more minerals in general than a conventional car. Additionally, cleaner energy infrastructure and renewable energy projects, such as wind farms, solar panels and batteries, heavily rely on these critical minerals, as the World Economic Forum’s Securing Minerals for the Energy Transition report shows.

Minerals used in electric cars compared to conventional cars.
Minerals used in electric cars compared to conventional cars. Image: IEA

Latin America holds approximately 40% of the world's copper reserves and, alongside Africa, stands at the forefront of this key moment. Responsible sourcing of these minerals presents a significant opportunity within the energy transition: generating income, creating jobs and fostering opportunities for local communities, while funding essential infrastructure and social projects.

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The success of these endeavours heavily relies on a pivotal factor: social acceptance. Without it, many of these projects could face significant delays or might even not be developed at all. To build social acceptance for large-scale projects in the energy, minerals and infrastructure sectors, we must focus on four essential action lines. These are rooted in 20 years of learning, executing and refining these lessons by Grupo Estrategia.

1. Comprehensive (and permanent) territorial understanding

Understanding the specific characteristics of the territories where projects are to be developed is fundamental. Large-scale projects will have diverse impacts on the territory and its social fabric. Comprehending these impacts – how, where, to whom, when, why – is crucial. This also requires deeply understanding the needs, fears and expectations of the communities and local stakeholders.

For instance, this involves detailed mapping of environmental, social and economic factors that influence the local context. By gathering and analyzing comprehensive territorial information, we can anticipate potential conflicts and opportunities, to tailor project strategies accordingly.

2. Communicating strategically

Effective communication is key to building trust and understanding between projects and local stakeholders. Traditional public relations efforts are important, but insufficient on their own.

Identifying credible local actors and amplifying their voices multiplies the legitimacy of the messages being transmitted. This involves not only disseminating information, but also actively listening to and addressing the concerns of local stakeholders. Engaging in strategic communication means creating platforms for regular updates, holding permanent one-to-one conversations, and utilizing various media channels to reach a broader audience. By fostering a culture of openness and responsiveness, companies can build a solid foundation of trust that is crucial for the long-term success of their projects.

3. Community and value chain win-win (building external social bases)

The success of large-scale projects depends significantly on the support of the external social bases, which include the value chain and local communities. Developing strong partnerships with local suppliers, contractors and service providers ensures that the economic benefits of the projects are widely distributed.

Moreover, community engagement initiatives are essential. These can range from investing in local education and healthcare facilities, to supporting small businesses and entrepreneurship. Some CEOs may feel frustration, thinking: “We invest millions of dollars in social projects, yet we still lack the goodwill of local stakeholders.” Often, this is because the social investment strategy is not aligned with the actual expectations or desires of the local stakeholders, but rather with what we assume they expect or want. By designing a social strategy (focused on the communities and on the value chain) with the legitimate objective of how to create positive change and goodwill, companies can create tangible benefits for communities, and cultivate a sense of win-win and pride in the projects, leading to greater social acceptance.

4. Constructing internal social bases (workers and their families)

The internal social base, comprising workers and their families, is equally important. Ensuring that employees (and their families) – particularly those operating and living in the territory – understand the project’s purpose, its national and local relevance, and how it contributes to tackling climate change is essential. Furthermore, a satisfied and aware workforce is more likely to advocate for the projects within their communities, further boosting social acceptance.

The energy transition is a monumental task that requires concerted efforts across multiple fronts. By focusing on comprehensive territorial understanding, strategic communication, building external social bases, and constructing internal social bases, we can pave the way for the responsible execution of large-scale projects. These projects are not only critical for the energy transition, but also for creating more and better opportunities for local communities and countries in general.

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Failure to build social acceptance could result in delays, increased costs and, ultimately, the failure to accelerate the energy transition and meet our climate targets. Conversely, by embracing these four action lines, we have the opportunity to create a sustainable and socially inclusive future. The urgency of the task at hand underscores the need for immediate and decisive action. Achieving social acceptance is not easy, but it is possible and indispensable to move forward in executing the energy transition and tackling climate change.

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