Sustainability in mining: what does it actually mean?

Very different things depending on who you ask, apparently. And, even then, how should mining achieve it?


contact-Sasha Suzdaleva

Sasha Suzdaleva

Community Marketing Manager

One of the most interesting discussions at our recent “Turning green into gold: what ‘net zero’ means for mining” community event played out when the panel started to discuss sustainability in mining. Over the course of a few minutes, it became apparent that even three people with long mining experience, who all have a keen focus on sustainability – and who even have broadly the same goals – can have quite different perspectives on what sustainability in mining actually means.

The viewpoints emerged in response to a question from guest moderator Tim Harford, who asked “What changes are necessary to make [mining] a more sustainable industry?”.

Responding first, panellist Sarah Gordon – CEO and Co-founder of  Satarla Risk & Sustainability Management – boldly kicked-off with the observation that mining is not sustainable. “We're digging something non-renewable out the ground, and we have zero intention of putting all that copper back to where we found it. Let's stop talking about ourselves as being a sustainable industry.”

Sarah immediately acknowledged that climate change is the “ticking clock” driving the energy transition, for which mining is essential, while making the audience laugh – wryly – with her recollection of attending the COP26 summit, observing that mining was barely spoken of. “Where on earth are we going to get material for those wind turbines, et cetera. Are they growing on the magic metals tree?” she asked.

Where on earth are we going to get material for those wind turbines, et cetera. Are they growing on the magic metals tree?

Sarah then went on to emphasise that one of the big areas of discussion at COP26 was how the energy transition must also be “a just [fair] transition”. “How,” she asked, “do we do it while also addressing poverty and making sure we have enough food and education and equality? And this is where you think, well, hang on; mining isn't just about digging the minerals and metals out the ground.”

She concluded her answer by suggesting, "The bigger opportunity is the development that goes into that commodity, what's happened to the environment, et cetera, et cetera. [Then, mining] becomes much more palatable, not just for society – especially within Europe, where at the moment we’re not going to have a [new] mine unless we actually take all of that seriously and do something differently.” A well-rounded answer, Sarah had focused on sustainability as it pertains to the outcomes of mining.

Axora’s Innovation Director Joe Carr quickly agreed with Sarah’s point on the socio-economic impact of mining, described mining as requiring a “social licence to operate” – in other words, to take into account the impact on local communities. As an example, Joe outlined the different attitudes and social licenses between sites such as Australia and Africa. A big mine in Australia has few, highly paid, and mostly FIFO (fly in fly out) employees, and so automation has a smaller impact on jobs. In contrast mines in Africa are looked on as an employer of local people first, and so are expected to bring jobs to the local community. Meaning you cannot automate out those roles without “breaking” your social license. Because of this, the meaning of innovation differs by region, and therefore will need to be addressed in different ways. “We [mining] want to do it better and we need to do it better” Joe added.

Much of Joe’s response focused on the evident complexities of the question; he described circumstances in which miners need to use less water, and other environments in which access to water is far from a problem. He also described the impossibility of suggesting to developing countries that they should not enjoy amenities that developed countries have enjoyed for years – air conditioning, fridges, freezers – because their energy and transportation policies are still predicated on coal and/or oil. “It’s complicated. Here in London [we’re] saying coal is evil and we're going to transition the world… …There's a lot of poorer people who would fundamentally argue with you, but their short-term interests are being able to cook food for their family and being able to get to work,” he said.

Perhaps the most succinct response came from the third panellist, Charlie Durant, Interim Head of Sustainability at CRU’s Sustainability Division. Charlie had already mentioned, in response to a prior question, the issue of the costs of producing mining-based commodities in a more sustainable way. In doing so, Charlie made it clear that making mining (and the industries that depend on it) more sustainable is going to result in higher costs of production, at least in the near term – costs that will inevitably make their way to consumers.

“Green steel is quite a common phrase that I deal with,” he had said earlier. “The questions there are going to be ‘Who pays for it?’ and ‘What green premium is established?’. How does the market work? Automotive companies, particularly in Europe, are looking at this issue quite clearly... How much are they willing to pay? Because it will be more expensive to produce the steel that way than traditional efforts.”

The questions there are going to be are ‘Who pays for it?’ and ‘What green premium is established?’

Then, in response to Tim Harford’s question about the changes necessary to make mining a more sustainable industry, Charlie added: “We should be careful if people say my product is used in X, therefore I don't need to do anything. Our industries are polluting. Steel [production] is 10-11% of global CO2 emissions. Aluminium is 2-3%; fertilizers is another chunk. There are water issues, there are issues with host communities. We've got issues around copper grade decline, which means that we're going to be using more energy per tonne to get the material out the ground.”

“Sustainability is going to be the issue which defines mining over the next 20, 30, 40 years. Probably longer; the point is that this is a megatrend. It's too simplistic to say ‘my product is required’; it’s a huge chunk of global emissions. We’re going to need to deploy capital at scale, a high CapEx spend is needed to get out of this problem,” he concluded.

So, a clear question yielded three thoughtful, informed answers from three well-regarded experts in the fields of sustainability and innovation in the sector. However, underlining just how difficult this problem is going to be to crack, what was left unsaid by the panellists is, perhaps, even more interesting than what was said.

For a while the question itself was quite explicit – what changes need to be made – the answers broadly consisted of affirmations that, yes, mining needs to embrace change more willingly. Yes, mining needs to take into account local economics and the societies in which mining takes place. Yes, mining needs to put huge amounts of money into sustainability. Everyone agreed that “something must be done” – but the panel was able to provide very few practical pointers about exactly what mining can do to improve the process of mining and become more sustainable itself, or where even to look for opportunities. Plenty of objectives, if you like; fewer strategies.

This is not, I must make clear, a criticism of our panel or their answers. They are the best of the best. The evident difficulties in determining actual, practical steps – throw money at what? How will we do this? – illustrate the work ahead of our sector; these steps evidently have yet to be defined and look decidedly difficult to define. Charlie probably nailed the issue with his reference to a decades-long timespan for greater sustainability in mining.

At Axora, we absolutely understand that mining is still somewhere near the beginning where sustainability is concerned; there’s a long journey ahead. And it’s because we want to make a difference, and because every journey begins with a single step, that we spend every day scouring the world for innovative solutions that deliver universal wins: improving the sustainability, safety and bottom lines of mine operations.

Or, if you like a succinct wrap-up: some of the ‘whats’ that help answer that question “What changes are necessary to make [mining] a more sustainable industry?”

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