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For hundreds of years, the mining industry has been a crucial component of the world's economy, the development of nations, and our standard of living. At CSG Talent, we are proud of our work within the sector and have placed exceptional leaders in senior-level mining jobs across the globe.
However, it is also one of the most resource-intensive sectors with significant environmental impacts. Due to this, there is a growing realisation that the future of mining must be sustainable, reducing emissions and minimising its ecological footprint by embracing clean technologies and decarbonisation.
This article will explore the following critical topics:
So, let's explore how this vital and innovative industry is discovering a path towards a greener, cleaner, and more efficient future.
While mining and the minerals extracted will continue to be crucial to society and our way of life far into the future, leaders within the industry cannot shy away from the impacts that mining has on the climate and the environment. However, if the entire industry confronts these issues, the mining community can work together to develop a more sustainable mining sector.
So, let's look at the main impacts of mining on the environment.
Mining operations can harm the quality of air. When mined mineral deposits are exposed on the surface, unrefined materials are released into the air. Toxic particles released from these materials include lead, cadmium, and arsenic.
These particles have the potential to cause damage to local communities living near the mining site. For example, inhaling these toxic particles can trigger respiratory system diseases and allergies.
Mining operations such as underground mines, waste-disposal areas, surface mines, haulage roads, tailing ponds, and processing plants all release dangerous pollutants to nearby water supplies. This impact on the water harms fishing, swimming, water supplies, and irrigation. Furthermore, the high levels of toxic chemicals can jeopardise the survival of aquatic flora, fauna, and animals that depend on them for food.
The mining industry accounts for between 4% and 7% of global greenhouse gas.
When land is cleared for mining, it causes the destruction of soils and vegetation, which in turn causes the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
The creation of products from the minerals produced from mining uses high amounts of energy throughout the different stages of the production chain, for example, excavation, transportation, and exploration. The energy used in these stages is largely sourced from burning fossil fuels.
In November 2022, global government and business leaders met at COP 27 to discuss what action to take to combat the climate emergency. One of the main takeaways from the summit was these leaders reaffirming their commitment to keeping global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Many countries also agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
With countries such as the US and Australia, which also happen to be mining powerhouses, committing to meeting net-zero targets by 2050, the industry has to face the challenge of decarbonising.
So, what is decarbonisation? Decarbonisation refers to all measures in which a government, organisation, or industry reduces its carbon footprint. This primarily involves the reduction of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) to limit the impact on the climate and environment.
As we have already explored, mining significantly contributes to global greenhouse gases. With the government openly committed to delivering net-zero targets, the global mining industry is under increasing pressure to reduce its emissions and environmental impact.
So, what steps has the mining industry taken to decarbonise and what still needs to be done? Here are the key carbon-reduction strategies:
Increasing numbers of mining companies are investing in renewable energy solutions to drive decarbonisation and lowering of their mining operations emissions. Renewables such as wind and solar are increasingly viable options for companies to enhance their energy independence and control over their power supplies.
Mining sites with excess land provide an opportunity to develop renewable energy sources, such as wind farms. This is particularly crucial in remote areas where the energy supply can be challenging.
Let's take a closer look at solar and wind, two key renewable energy sources that will lead the transformation of mining and its contribution to the fight against climate change:
Despite the dramatic fall in the cost of solar in recent years, the initial building of a new system still needs significant investment. This cost is higher when done in remote areas, which is often the case with many mines. Wind power is similar; despite the global average cost of onshore wind projects falling by 35%, the initial installation fees can still be expensive.
These initial costs have caused many mining companies to avoid using solar and stick to diesel-powered infrastructure.
However, once the solar panels have been built and the investment has been made, they become far more cost-effective than diesel. Firstly, they won't have the expense of providing litres and litres of fuel for diesel-powered machines and vehicles. In addition, the lack of moving parts and maintenance reduction means that the upkeep costs are significantly lower.
Therefore, despite the upfront costs, companies that have decided to invest in solar energy can heavily reduce their operational costs and see attractive returns on their investment.
A solar and wind power system at a mining site means it doesn't have to rely as heavily on fuel deliveries. It, therefore, becomes more self-sufficient and increases autonomy over its power supply. Most power can be collected through the panels and turbines installed on the site.
As solar panels rely on sunlight, energy can be stored using batteries for use at night or on cloudy days. Like the cost of solar, batteries are also falling, making the process much more appealing to mining companies. This is also the case for wind power. Energy can again be stored in batteries and be used in periods of little or no wind.
It is also worth noting that even for sites that continue to use diesel for some aspects of their operations, solar and wind can be vital when the diesel supply is interrupted.
Solar is vital in achieving net-zero targets due to its highly green and sustainable nature. Solar-powered generators don't produce carbon emissions, making them a friendlier option than diesel. It is also a much more sustainable power source as it doesn't rely on the extraction of fossil fuels from the Earth.
Switching to solar can help mining companies reduce carbon emissions and increase sustainability. An effective solar system can help reduce or even eliminate the requirement to use diesel generators as a method of powering sites when it is paired with batteries. Furthermore, solar can be used to power electric vehicles, which we will discover later, which will further help reduce emissions.
Wind is also a vital contributor to the achievement of environmental targets. Its effectiveness is highlighted by its success at Glencore's Raglan Mine in northern Quebec. The mine set out a target of replacing diesel with wind power and at the same time, reducing its greenhouse gases.
So, in 2014, Glencore completed the construction of a 120-metre-high wind turbine and storage facility. The facility was unprecedented in scale and was designed to withhold Arctic climate conditions. Since its inception, the facility has saved 7.5 million litres of diesel and has reduced GHG emissions by kilotons. The success of this innovation was recognised with the 2016 TSM Environmental Excellence Award from The Mining Association of Canada (MAC).
The Agnew Gold Mine in Western Australia is leading the way in using renewable energy to power its operations. It became the county's first mine powered by wind, gas, solar, and battery microgrids. The mine's microgrid consists of the following:
The microgrid is having a significantly positive effect on the environment, which is shown in these statistics:
Mining giant Rio Tinto is expected to invest $1 billion in climate-based projects over the next five years. In addition, it has stopped using coal, committed to assessing its emissions-reduction objectives on an asset-by-asset basis, and joined the Energy Transitions Commission to help advance and speed up its decarbonisation process.
The Agnew Gold Mine and Rio Tinto have set a shining example of what can be achieved in the mining industry's fight against climate change. They have taken responsibility for their carbon emissions and environmental impact and are using the power of renewable energy to become more sustainable. This example is something that mines need to implement the world over if environmental targets are to be met.
For more than 70 years, the mining industry has relied on diesel-powered vehicles and machinery. Unfortunately, diesel is notorious for causing pollution, releasing high emissions, and being very noisy. However, the industry's attitude to diesel is changing.
Mining companies have increased their focus on battery-operated vehicle (BEV) adoption in response to net-zero by 2050 targets. BEV vehicles have potential benefits such as:
Although the mining industry has been relatively slow to adopt battery-operated vehicles compared to the automotive sector, there is significant potential for electrification. Take Panama, for example, with a strong gold and copper mining heritage; currently, 25% of its mining equipment is electrified. However, only 1% of the global mining equipment market is electric, showing the size of the opportunity.
Electrical equipment can improve health and safety in underground mines where flames and high temperatures are rife. Using electrical equipment underground can reduce the heat generated by diesel equipment by 87%. This reduction in temperature reduces the need for cooling and ventilation, which will save money in the process.
Electric mining trucks offer further significant environmental and operational benefits. Two key benefits include:
But won't electrical equipment and vehicles be more expensive? This is a valid question that many mining companies will be asking. However, while the initial purchase of this equipment is higher, the operating costs, such as maintenance and fuel, are lower. If you add on top of the money saved on cooling and ventilation, there is a strong business case for electrification.
Achieving the target of 1.5-celsius global warming and reaching net zero by 2050 would require all aspects of the economy to decarbonise. However, to date, the industry has been relatively slow in playing its part in practising greener and more sustainable mining.
Due to the political and social pressures around climate change, the mining industry has been increasingly put under the spotlight and made to show what it is doing in this emergency. And whilst progress has been slow, things are starting to improve, and the industry is realising the benefits of making these changes are to its future and the health and well-being of its workforce.
As we have seen with the success of the Agnew Gold Mine and the steps that Rio Tinto are making, mining companies can decarbonise and remain highly profitable and productive. And while the initial costs of these companies installing clean technology were high, they are reaping the environmental benefits and finding their production is far more cost-effective.
It is also not just from a cost and environmental standpoint that these changes are vital. It is also mining companies' reputations at stake. Mining companies' steps to be more sustainable reflect on their brand image, licence to operate, and attractiveness in the jobs market to a younger generation who are increasingly concerned about their planet.
For mining to take these crucial steps to become more sustainable and environmentally friendly, it needs strong and innovative leaders to set an example. As leaders, you will be part of this environmental revolution and be a key part of 'future-proofing' the industry, so it continues to be a vital aspect of our society and way of life.
At CSG, we are dedicated to connecting exceptional talent to leading global mining industries. We want to build a relationship with you and discover your skills, needs, and motivations. We are then committed to placing you in roles that best suit you.
If you want to discover more about how we can support you, discover our dedicated mining page for more details.