Hard work, in­no­va­tion helps the ‘green­ing’ of min­ers

Bangkok Post - - OPINION - RAIMUND BLEISCHWITZ PROJECT SYNDICATE Raimund Bleischwitz is Deputy Di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don In­sti­tute for Sus­tain­able Re­sources.

Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency in the United States has turned min­ing — and the coal in­dus­try in par­tic­u­lar — into a po­lit­i­cal cause célèbre over the last year. In June, dur­ing his first White House cab­i­net meet­ing, Mr Trump sug­gested that his en­ergy poli­cies were putting min­ers back to work and trans­form­ing a trou­bled sec­tor of the econ­omy.

But Mr Trump is mis­taken to think that cham­pi­oning the cause of min­ers and pay­ing re­spect to a dif­fi­cult pro­fes­sion will be suf­fi­cient to make min­ing sus­tain­able. To achieve that, a far more com­plex set of in­ter­de­pen­den­cies must be nav­i­gated.

De­bates about min­ing and the en­vi­ron­ment are of­ten framed in terms of a “nexus” be­tween ex­trac­tion of a re­source and the in­tro­duc­tion of other re­sources into the ex­trac­tion process. The forth­com­ing Rout­ledge Hand­book of the Re­source Nexus, which I co-edited, de­fines the term as the re­la­tion­ship be­tween two or more nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring ma­te­ri­als that are used as in­puts in a sys­tem that pro­vides ser­vices to hu­mans. In the case of coal, the “nexus” is be­tween the rock and the huge amounts of wa­ter and en­ergy needed to mine it.

For de­ci­sion-mak­ers, un­der­stand­ing this link­age is crit­i­cal to ef­fec­tive re­source and land-use man­age­ment. Ac­cord­ing to re­search from 2014, there is an in­verse re­la­tion­ship be­tween the grade of ore and the amount of wa­ter and en­ergy used to ex­tract it. In other words, mis­read­ing how in­puts and out­puts in­ter­act could have pro­found en­vi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences.

More­over, be­cause many re­new­able en­ergy tech­nolo­gies are built with mined me­tals and min­er­als, the global min­ing in­dus­try will play a key role in the tran­si­tion to a low-car­bon fu­ture. Pho­to­voltaic cells may draw en­ergy from the sun, but they are man­u­fac­tured from cad­mium, se­le­nium and tel­lurium. The same goes for wind tur­bines, which are fash­ioned from co­pi­ous amounts of cobalt, cop­per and rare-earth ox­ides.

Nav­i­gat­ing t he min­ing i ndus­try’s re­source nexus will re­quire new gov­er­nance mod­els that can bal­ance ex­trac­tion prac­tices with emerg­ing en­ergy needs — like those en­vi­sioned by the UN’s Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals (SDGs). Value cre­ation, profit max­imi­sa­tion, and com­pet­i­tive­ness must also be mea­sured against the greater pub­lic good.

Some within the global min­ing in­dus­try have recog­nised that the winds are chang­ing. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent sur­vey of in­dus­try prac­tices by CDP, a non-profit en­ergy and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­sul­tancy, min­ing com­pa­nies from Aus­tralia to Brazil are be­gin­ning to ex­tract re­sources while re­duc­ing their en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­print.

Nonethe­less, if the in­ter­ests of the pub­lic, and the planet, are to be pro­tected, the world can­not rely on the busi­ness de­ci­sions of min­ing com­pa­nies alone. Four key changes are needed to en­sure that the in­dus­try’s green­ing trend con­tin­ues.

First, min­ing needs an in­no­va­tion over­haul. De­clin­ing ore grades re­quire the in­dus­try to be­come more en­ergy- and re­source-ef­fi­cient to re­main prof­itable. And, be­cause wa­ter scarcity is among the top chal­lenges fac­ing the in­dus­try, ecofriendly so­lu­tions are of­ten more vi­able than con­ven­tional ones. In Chile, for ex­am­ple, cop­per mines have been forced to start us­ing de­sali­nated wa­ter for ex­trac­tion, while Swe­den’s Boli­den sources up to 42% of its en­ergy needs from re­new­ables. Min­ing com­pa­nies else­where learn from these ex­am­ples.

Sec­ond, prod­uct di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion must start now. With the Paris cli­mate agree­ment a year old, the trans­for­ma­tion of global fos­sil-fuel mar­kets is only a mat­ter of time. Com­pa­nies with a large port­fo­lio of fos­sil fu­els, like coal, will soon face se­vere un­cer­tainty re­lated to stranded as­sets, and in­vestors may change their risk as­sess­ments ac­cord­ingly.

Large min­ing com­pa­nies can pre­pare for this shift by mov­ing from fos­sil fu­els to other ma­te­ri­als, such as iron ore, cop­per, baux­ite, cobalt, rare earth el­e­ments and lithium, as well as min­eral fer­tilis­ers, which will be needed in large quan­ti­ties to meet the SDGs’ tar­gets for global hunger erad­i­ca­tion. Phas­ing out coal dur­ing times of la­tent over­pro­duc­tion might even be done at a profit.

Third, the world needs a bet­ter means of as­sess­ing min­ing’s eco­log­i­cal risks. Al­though the in­dus­try’s en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­print is smaller than that of agri­cul­ture and ur­ban­i­sa­tion, ex­tract­ing ma­te­ri­als from the ground can still per­ma­nently harm ecosys­tems and lead to bio­di­ver­sity loss. To pro­tect sen­si­tive ar­eas, greater global co­or­di­na­tion is needed in the se­lec­tion of suit­able min­ing sites. In­te­grated as­sess­ments of sub­soil as­sets, ground­wa­ter, and bio­sphere in­tegrity would also help, as would guidelines for sus­tain­able re­source con­sump­tion.

Fi­nally, the min­ing sec­tor must bet­ter in­te­grate its value chains to cre­ate more eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties down­stream. Es­tab­lish­ing mod­els of ma­te­rial flows — such as the ones ex­ist­ing for alu­minum and steel — and link­ing them with “cir­cu­lar econ­omy” strate­gies, such as waste re­duc­tion and re­use, would be a good start. A more rad­i­cal change could come from a se­ri­ous en­gage­ment in mar­kets for sec­ondary ma­te­ri­als. “Ur­ban min­ing” — the sal­vaging, pro­cess­ing, and de­liv­ery of re­us­able ma­te­ri­als from de­mo­li­tion sites — could also be bet­ter in­te­grated into cur­rent core ac­tiv­i­ties.

The global min­ing in­dus­try is on the verge of trans­form­ing it­self from fos­sil­fuel ex­trac­tion to sup­ply­ing ma­te­ri­als for a greener en­ergy fu­ture. But this “green­ing” is the re­sult of hard work, in­no­va­tion, and a com­plex un­der­stand­ing of the re­source nexus.

What­ever Amer­ica’s coal-happy pres­i­dent may be­lieve, it is not the re­sult of po­lit­i­cal plat­i­tudes.

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