Mining for a sustainable future

Materials World magazine
1 Jan 2018

Tracey Kerr* argues that the mining industry has to be bold and brave in its climate change targets.

With the global population reaching 7.6 billion people and living standards improving, the subsequent demand for energy means environmental sustainability has never been more important than at this time. 

Results published by the University of East Anglia, UK, forecast global fossil fuel emissions stagnating for the third consecutive year in 2016, at 0.2%. However, this needs to dramatically decline if we are to reach the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change target of limiting global temperature rises below 2°C by 2050.

This is particularly pertinent to the mining industry, which depends on land, power and other resources to mine the metals and minerals that are vital for socio-economic growth.

However, it has become clear that nothing short of transformation in the industry will be enough. At Anglo American, our 2030 target is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 30% – in absolute terms, based on a 2016 baseline – and an increase in energy efficiency of 30%, all without compromising financial returns.

Taking action

For industrial companies, protecting the environment and optimising their operations should go hand-in-hand. The energy industry and those relying on natural resources have a greater role to play, partly due to their operations often being most at risk from the effects of climate change. According to the International Energy Agency, the extreme weather events – projected as a result of climate change – have long been a cause of oil and gas production disruptions. 

The risk to mining operations, which are typically located in remote and under-developed areas, is no different. Mining is a long-term business and the potential physical risks of climate change are well within the operational lives of many of our long-life assets, and certainly for new projects. 

It is important, therefore, to use the latest scientific methods to understand how operations might be affected by climate change over the medium term, so that we can put measures in place now to avoid them. 

In this context, the industry must take the impact of climate change into account, particularly when it comes to investing in new projects. 

Working with the UK Met Office, we undertook early climate studies in 2010-2011, ranking all group operations and projects for climate vulnerability. We selected De Beers’ Venetia diamond mine, located in a hot semi-arid region in South Africa, as the pilot site for integrating climate risk responses into Anglo American's operating model.

The adaptation team worked at Venetia to clarify and explore the implications of different scenarios. For example, a rise in temperature has significant implications for water recovery from the tailings dam and the mine’s ventilation requirements. This exercise will help us to understand the impact climate change could have on our projects and how we can adapt our engineering and design controls.  

Innovation in sustainable mining

The mining industry has achieved a great deal by optimising operations and focusing on efficiency. However, to really make a difference we must look to modernise. Advances in smart technology have extended beyond consumer goods, and the demand for constant innovation is no longer an option, but a mandate. This holds substantial opportunities for those that respond quickly and shape the agenda.

The car industry is, for example, storming ahead in developing low-carbon alternatives to the traditional internal combustion engine. Things like battery electric and hydrogen vehicles are crucial in the effort to decarbonise roads and reduce air pollution in towns and cities. Anglo American is currently working with a number of the world’s largest manufacturers. The newly formed Hydrogen Council, of which we are a member, plans to invest €1.9bln per year, on average, in hydrogen technology in the next five years. 

Moreover, those involved in the low-carbon transport sector work with policy makers to develop the necessary infrastructure. This will change not only the way we use transport, but also its energy consumption.

Replicating this determination in the mining sector is paramount. In order to find more sustainable methods to unlock mineral value, users have already shared ideas for water conservation. Ideas from our annual FutureSmart Water Open Forum in 2015 have helped us to work towards decreasing our water dependency, in order to achieve our vision of having a waterless mine. This is motivated by our need to mine and extract precious resources in some of the world’s most remote and arid environments.

Beyond emissions

Sustainability is by no means limited to climate change and ecological matters – it is a package of values and behaviours that is necessary to safeguard our future licence to operate. There are real business benefits to being a leader in sustainable and responsible business practices. In practical terms this means being a respectful employer, neighbour and partner through good governance, such as environmental stewardship, providing safe and healthy work environments and sharing the benefits of mining with local stakeholders.  

The aim has to be zero harm, which means that no employee is hurt in the workplace or around our operations. Our annual Global Safety Day involves discussions on how we can improve as a company, as well as an industry, and investigates the roles individuals can play in achieving the overarching agenda. 

In an increasingly competitive market for skills, companies must also continue to invest in workplace initiatives to promote engagement and leadership. 

At Anglo American, we recently conducted a company-wide employee engagement survey to understand how we can use engagement to deliver results. In addition, each year we support around 2,700 graduates, bursars, apprentices and trainees across our international operations. 

Sustainability also has to extend into working with local communities. For the mining industry, this is especially pertinent as operations are often located in underdeveloped areas where communities rely directly on the environment for their wellbeing and their livelihood. It is not enough to avoid doing harm – there is a rightful expectation that the benefits of mining be shared more equitably on a local level.

While we cannot, and should not, take the place of government, there are ways to improve the lives of those who live in mining regions. It is important to work with small- and medium-sized enterprises, as we have done in supporting black South African entrepreneurs, extending into Chile in 2006 and more recently into Brazil, Botswana and Peru.

Looking ahead

The private sector must continue to strive towards environmental efficiency – that is not in doubt. In particular, resource-heavy industries must continue to develop more sustainable means of conducting business, to guarantee a viable future for operations and for local communities. A responsible and sustainable business goes beyond minimising its environmental impact – it also empowers local communities and employees.

*Tracey Kerr is Group Head of Safety and Sustainable Development at Anglo American.