A change for the worse?

Materials World magazine
13 Oct 2014

Despite mounting evidence that the Earth’s climate is changing, not all mining companies are acting to mitigate the predicted impacts. Why is this and what steps should they be taking? Guy Richards reports. 

In May this year, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that global temperatures had again hit a record high. Countering recent claims by some that global warming has stopped, or at least hit the pause button, it said May 2014 marked the 39th consecutive May and the 351st consecutive month – more than 29 years – with a global temperature above the 20th Century average. It also said the higher temperatures were spread fairly evenly around the world.

It is now almost universally agreed, at least in the scientific community, that these increases in temperature are causing the Earth’s climate to change, leading to floods in some parts of the world, droughts in others, rising sea levels and more intense storms. From society’s perspective, these have the very real potential to put critical pressure not just on supplies of food, water and energy, but also on the materials supply chain.

Despite this, a recent study carried out in Australia (that also has implications for the rest of the world) shows that many mining companies are not assessing the risks and impacts associated with climate change, nor making adaptations to their projects to minimise their vulnerability to these impacts. Conducted by Australia’s national science agency CSIRO and published in March 2014, the study found that only 15% of mining companies nationally are undertaking some form of climate change adaptation – a similar figure to that found in a study it carried out in 2010 – and that fewer than 40% of them believe that climate is in fact changing. On this latter point, the research also cited a study carried out in Canada in 2011, reporting that fewer than half of the mining companies there expect climate change to have a negative impact on their operations.

Taking the wider perspective, CSIRO researcher Dr Barton Loechel says, ‘Mining company operations and the communities that host them – in all countries – need to be assessing the risks posed by climate change and potential adaptation options.’

This view is echoed by cross-industry sustainable development body the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), which in its 2013 report, Adapting to a changing climate: implications for the mining and metals industry, says, ‘Higher temperatures, rising sea levels, shifting patterns of precipitation and increases in the frequency and intensity of weather events will have impacts across the mining and metals cycle globally.’

The sector often operates in isolated locations, the report points out, and mines and metals processing need climate-sensitive inputs such as water and energy, a requirement that in some areas may compete with that of other users for these resources. There is also the broader issue of supply chain reliability, it says, such as the delivery of fuels and materials to a facility and of ore or processed metals to market – essential aspects of running a mine that could be severely disrupted by a weather event. However, it would be wrong to imply that the industry as a whole is not alive to the risks presented by climate change or the need to make adaptations, and much of the running is being made by the larger companies.

Dr Barton explains, ‘In our later survey, we collected more responses from small mining companies, many of whose primary role was exploration, so they are not investing as much in terms of infrastructure and spend a relatively limited time in the field for any one project – from one to three years.

‘This compares to the longer term – up to 30–40 years – and much more substantial investment in fixed mining infrastructure and/or expensive plant and equipment by mining extraction/production and processing companies. Adaptation planning is so much more beneficial to these organisations to prevent investment in assets that turn out to be poorly suited to the changing conditions.’

But scepticism about climate change still reigns in some parts of the industry, and Dr Barton says this is constraining adaptation activity. ‘It appears that some [companies] are adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach, awaiting greater confirmation of the [climate] science and projections. However, I think it’s still better to at least assess your known unknowns rather than hope it all works out,’ he says.

Reducing the risks
With that in mind, what steps can mining companies take to adapt to the risks (accepted or otherwise) posed by climate change? The ICMM report says many of the approaches, tools, information and resources – such as internal risk management, emergency response and community engagement – necessary for identifying and adapting to climate risks already exist within companies. The report also sets out a framework of the adaptation options available. Alternatively, or additionally, the CSIRO has developed a tool with the same aim, called CRATER (see right). The ICMM’s point chimes with that of non-profit organisation Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), which does a lot of work in this realm with miners and has published guides and reports on adaptation over the past few years, most recently in June 2014. BSR’s Director of its Energy and Extractives practice, Michael Oxman says, ‘We frequently advocate the integration of emerging issues into existing management and planning frameworks wherever possible, rather than creating entirely new systems. Similarly, we recommend tackling the issue of climate adaptation and resilience in the same manner, and using climate as another ‘lens’ on overall risk management.’

A good example of this kind of issue management, he says, as well as an illustration of investor/ lender considerations, is the International Finance Corporation’s performance standards and also the Equator Principles, which effectively mirror the standards for private banks that have signed on. ‘These standards are generally accepted as a collection of best practices for managing key environmental and social issues, and are often required by lenders or corporate standards in host countries that lack adequate regulation or enforcement,’ he explains. ‘Within these, there is no specific standard for climate adaptation, but consideration of climate risk both as a root cause or factor in robustly managing the issues that are covered does not require a substantial conceptual or organisational leap.’
In short, he says, BSR recommends that mining companies don’t look at climate risk in isolation but instead integrate climate hazards and sensitivities into a more comprehensive approach to risk management, to prepare for and minimise their impact on local environments and communities. But, Oxman adds, ‘In order for companies to test their assumptions in mine design to include the possible impacts of climate change, continuous improvements in the quality of information from the collaborative efforts of scientific institutions, industry bodies and civil society are also needed.’

Oxman’s advice could prove particularly timely. At the time of writing, experts were predicting major climatic impacts this autumn as a result of an El Niño event, a weather pattern created by prolonged warming of sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean that precipitates flooding, droughts and harsher winters around the world. Scientists are also more certain than ever that global warming is making these events more frequent and more intense.

Less definite are the exact timing and severity of these effects at a local level, but Dr Loechel says a fair analogy is not to wear a seatbelt when driving a car, because there’s no knowing what kind of crash might occur. He adds, ‘[Mining companies] also need to consider what happens not because they aren’t wearing a seatbelt when a sudden event occurs, but [because of] what happens if they don’t top up the car’s radiator. A slow change, such as long-term drought and increased heat and fire hazard, can also be damaging.’  

Which adaptations to make?

CRATER (Climate Related Adaptation from Terrain Evaluation Results) is a decision-making tool developed by Australia’s science agency, CSIRO, to give mines a comprehensive and realistic way of reducing risks associated with climate change. It is designed to be used by any mine that has geographic data and a geographic information system, in any country.

Traditional risk models identify potential hazards, but CRATER also takes users through the process of finding potential solutions and choosing which is the most appropriate for the mine at that time. It is not a piece of software but a series of steps that enables mine managers to weigh up the options.
The project’s leader, Dr Jane Hodgkinson, says, ‘We used it first just for flooding risk at a current mine site to help develop adaptation options to reduce vulnerability. But it could also be used at the pre-mining stage to develop alternative mine plan options that avoid or reduce flood, storm or wind risk, in addition to planning for water storage during drought.’

The next development step is to test ‘what if’ scenarios under future climate conditions across more than one mine site.