Expert Insight

Young recruits needed to transform mining

Sustainable mining is key in our fight against climate change

June 11, 2020

Lucy Crane

Expert Insight
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February 21, 2020
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“If something hasn’t been grown, then it must have been mined.” This statement is abundantly clear to those who work within the mining industry. However, communicating quite how crucial the sector is for modern society to the public outside of the mining-industry ‘echo chamber’ is something that is often poorly attempted, or neglected entirely. Mining’s relationship to climate change – arguably the biggest global challenge faced in decades – is perhaps the most critical example of this conflict.

Given their essential role in low carbon technologies associated with renewable energy, battery storage and electric vehicles, we need to mine more raw materials than ever before. However, if this message is to be accepted, it is the responsibility of the industry to regain trust and to ensure such metals are extracted responsibly.

Modern technologies demand a whole suite of ‘new’ metals in addition to the more traditional, but still essential, metals such as copper,aluminium, tin and iron. It is astonishing to some members of the public that a standard mobile phone contains two thirds of the elements of the periodic table.A 3MW wind turbine comprises 4.3 tonnes of copper, 304t of steel and 1.8t of REEs1.

In parallel, global populations are rising and demand for raw materials is rising alongside them. To put this into context, over the past 5,000 years it is estimated that we have extracted about 500Mt of copper – we need to mine this same amount of copper in the next 25 years to meet expecteddemand growth1. Recycling of materials currently in circulation simply cannot meet these future demands.

This requires the industry to explore new places, both for ‘conventional’metals such as nickel and copper, but also for metals that are essential for new technologies. The industry will be forced to consider new mineral deposits that have been until now been considered ‘unconventional’, such as mineral-rich geothermal brines, from which metals can now be extracted using exciting new techniques developed by scientists who are increasingly aware of the challenges that lie ahead if we are to tackle climate change.

The deposits of tomorrow are likely be deeper undercover and in more challenging locations, but perversely may also be found closer to home.In Europe the NIMBY attitude to mining means we have been happy to ‘outsource’our mineral extraction beyond our shores and immediate eyeline, rather than supporting the projects on our doorstep. Rapid developments in sustainable mineral extraction techniques are transformational – such as ore sorting, backfill, and hydrometallurgy – and mean the mining industry is maybe not the villain that it used to be.

The industry must convince the investors who support exploration and development projects, and wider society that gives us social license to operate of the benefits development can bring to a region, and the importance of supporting the more sustainable players within the industry.

Investments into primary producers are often seen as high risk and may have smaller yields than investments made further along the value chain, for example into technology companies. However, without the production of primary raw materials, the rest of this supply chain wouldn’t be possible.

Increasingly, investors are also taking into account companies’ environmental, social and governance (ESG) approaches; driven in part by regulation, but also through recognition of the need to build sustainability into businesses. Factors such as carbon footprints are now coming into play where finances are concerned, and investments are being directed towards producers with transparent and environmentally responsible approaches. Initiatives such as ‘Climate Smart Mining’ from the World Bank are steps in the right direction; this is a positive thing for the industry and represents significant opportunities for companies who are leading the charge.

We need mining to be seen as an exciting, sustainable and climate-positive career choice

Traditionally, the industry has been nervous of engaging with the general public. Environmental and social impacts haven’t always been positive (to put it mildly) and it is always disasters that make the headlines –the Brumadinho tailings dam collapse early last year as a prime example – rather than the success stories.

For the past few decades, the industry has kept itself to itself, staying out of the news and avoiding trouble wherever possible. However,this approach isn’t working: it engenders mistrust of companies who aren’t communicating transparently with the local communities in which they wish to work, and makes gaining crucial (yet intangible) social license to operate much harder for the companies who follow – see recent examples of riots and protests in South America.

‘Mining’ is now an emotive word to many people, conjuring up images of big corporations moving into environmentally sensitive areas and tearing out a resource which isn’t theirs to take. The benefits go to distant businessmen and local people are left with little more than an environmental disaster to clean up.

This may be an exaggeration, but it certainly has happened in the past. At the same time, those within the industry know that there are many companies that are the antithesis to this.

There’s no denying that it is an issue that needs addressing, particularly now that the reality on the ground looks very different to that emotive depiction. If the industry is to successfully reposition itself, it must re-engage with society, despite the disasters of the recent past. Currently, the industry is seen as contributing to the problem of climate change, whereas it needs to be recognised as part of the solution.

This current negative public perception has knock-on effects within the industry that are being felt today.

Metals have the potential to be the enablers or disablers of the low-carbon economy. There’s a dichotomy: society needs the metals the mining industry provides for low-carbon technologies to combat climate change,but the industry is struggling to attract investment due to negative public perceptions and a lack of confidence that the capital will fund ‘sustainable’mining operations. Companies need to embrace the opportunities that this sustainable capital will support; and continue to be proactive in driving positive ESG improvements.

There is a skills shortage. The number of students studying subjects such as geology and mining at university has been declining for over a decade. We need more people, including young people and those from diverse backgrounds, to study technical subjects and enter the industry. We need to sell technical degrees such as geology and mining as environmentally positive,and to encourage those who are passionate about the environment to be future industry leaders. Studying these degrees gives people the toolkit to be part of the solution to combatting climate change.

This has compounded a leadership gap driven by the industry’s cyclical nature: professionals in their late 30s and 40s who left the industry during the 2012 downturn haven’t returned.

The industry badly needs to attract more skilled people to the sector – both at the start of their careers and to management roles from other high-tech industries. To do this, we need mining to be seen as an exciting, sustainable and climate-positive career choice.

It’s very easy to criticise something from the outside, but when an industry is so vital for modern society, surely it’s better to change it for good from the inside.

Expert Insight
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June 11, 2020

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