To get to net-zero, we will need to make mining 'nature-positive', says mining council chief
- The Globel Investor Commission on Mining 2030, launched this week, says sector needs to address numerous systemic ESG risks to meet projected 500% growth in demand to power clean-energy economy
- Key is risk of biodiversity loss. According to RepRisk, 17% of mining operations are within one kilometre of a key biodiversity area or protected area.
- The CEO of the International Council of Mining and Minerals, Rohitesh Dhawan, says many of its members are working to make their mining operations 'nature-positive', by offsetting damage in one area with investments in another, or through rehabilitation
- But some of the worst environmental abuses are from small-scale or illegal mining
January 27 - The field of sustainable business is littered with apparent oxymorons: “clean coal”, “ethical tobacco”, “responsible gambling”, and now, the latest in this illustrious list, “nature-positive mining”.
That’s right. An industry that revolves around “breaking ground” to extract natural resources is anxious to position itself as a defender of the natural environment. It sounds like poppycock, but could it just be possible?
With the mining sector expected to grow meteorically to meet the demand for minerals to power electric vehicles and wind turbines, many would like it to be – and not just within the industry. This week saw the launch of the Global Investor Commission on Mining 2030, an initiative by the sector’s financial backers exploring the systemic changes that will be needed to ensure mining companies can ramp up extraction without causing harm to people, communities, and the environment.
Focus areas include artisanal mining, child labour, the impact of automation, indigenous peoples’ rights, impacts on biodiversity, climate change, tailings dams, conflict reconciliation, and corruption.
“The low-carbon transition is intrinsically linked to the capacity of mining to address a series of systemic social and environmental risks that threaten the sector’s social licence and its ability to meet the 500% projected growth in demand for critical minerals,” said the Commission’s chair, Adam Matthews, director of ethics and engagement the Church of England Pensions Board.
It's not that any of this is new to the mining industry. The International Council of Mining and Metals (ICMM), was formed more than 20 years ago, and its mining principles have evolved over the years into a mandatory set of environmental, social and governance requirements of its 26 members, which represent a third of the global metals and mining industry.
The chief executive of the ICMM is Rohitesh “Ro” Dhawan. He seems a smart choice for the job, given that he holds a master’s degree in environmental management and has advised the UK government in the past on climate transition strategy.
In an interview with Ethical Corporation, Dhawan insisted that mining, done well, could be neutral or even positive for nature, but he was candid about the challenges. “It's very hard to make a hole in the ground nature-positive,” Dhawan says. “When you're making a hole in the ground, you're going to disturb nature.”
He is keen to point out that extracting minerals and metals occupies “less than 0.1%” of the world’s total landmass. Compare that to agriculture, at “somewhere close to 50%”, relatively speaking, the industry’s planetary footprint is a “small portion” of the whole.
“For all the metals and minerals we produce, it’s remarkable how little of the world's land we disturb,” Dhawan says. “But – and it's a big ‘but’ – often where we mine happens in areas where nature is very sensitive to change.”
According to figures from the ESG research provider RepRisk, 17% of mining operations linked to the critical battery metals of cobalt, lithium, and nickel are located within one kilometre of a key biodiversity area or a habitat that is otherwise protected. Pan out, and around half such projects fall within a 10-km radius.
From damage to the fragile Dana Biosphere reserve in Jordan and cloud forests in Ecuador, to the degradation of rainforests in the Democratic Republic of Congo and deserts in Chile, the sector’s impacts have led to a slew of campaigns by conservationists over recent decades. And these potential impacts will only increase as the sector looks to expand.
Mining companies have witnessed a gradual toughening up on the part of environmental regulators, with very real commercial costs. Stricter licensing requirements can – and, regularly, do – delay viable mining projects, or even result in their cancellation, notes Daniel Litvin, founder of the consultancy firm Critical Resource.
In a recent opinion piece, he said a “countless” number of proposed new mines have fallen foul of “not-in-my-backyard activism” or environmental opposition. Earlier this month, the Chilean miner Andes Iron saw a proposed $2.5-billion project in the north of Chile scrapped because of the threat it posed to a colony of endangered Humboldt penguins. read more
Such instances explain Dhawan’s broad support for the new investor-led commission. Any help to “accelerate action and address any gaps” is welcome, he says. His only hesitation is the possibility of adding further complexity to what is already a crowded landscape; the sector already counts ICMM’s principles, plus a pending sector standard from the UN Global Reporting Initiative, as well as sub-sector standards for gold, aluminium, and copper, to name but a few.
He says responsible mining companies (by which he chiefly means ICMM’s members) already minimise their impact wherever they can; and where damage occurs (as inevitably it must), they rehabilitate to the best of their ability.
One example is a vast, $14.3-billion S11D iron ore mine complex in the Amazon rainforest, the most biodiverse biome in the world. read more Owned by Brazilian miner Vale, the concession area covers around 411,000 hectares of the Carajás National Forest, an environmental treasure trove that is also home to the Xikrin people.
Vale was fined $17 million by Brazil’s comptroller general last year for failing to present reliable information on its Brumadinho tailings dam prior to a 2019 disaster, when the dam collapsed, killing 270 people and ravaging nearby forests, rivers and communities. Earlier this month Vale said it planned to spend $1.53 billion this year on repairs related to Brazil’s worst mining disaster.
Could this be another disaster in the making? Not according to Dhawan, who insists that the rainforest is better protected with Vale there than if it were not; an argument he recently made to Brazil’s new environment minister Marina Silva when the pair met at the recent World Economic Forum summit in Davos.
The company only exploits 1.4% of its concession in the park; in the remainder, it invests “significant resources” to ensure the forest is conserved. Among these measures is the creation of a 30-hectare “biopark”, which plays home to more than 270 animals, including rare birds, agoutis, and monkeys. The facility has received more than one million visitors over the last 11 years.
“I had the chance to visit this and fly over the area,” Dhawan says. “Everything around it is entirely deforested. The only portion that is standing is the portion that is under Vale’s management and control.”
True, but hundreds of hectares of virgin rainforest have still been lost forever, have they not? There is no neat resolution. Vale’s response, which Dhawan holds as best practice, is to offset damage in one area with compensatory investments in another.
“For every hectare of land that they [Vale] disturb as a result of mining, they protect or conserve 12 hectares of land elsewhere. So that's the ratio of their positive impact relative to the amount that they disturbed through mining . . . which I think is a really critical element of how mining, when done well, can really contribute to nature-positive future.”
Another element in the nature-positive formula is rehabilitation. Here, he cites Alcoa’s policy of restoring all its mining operations within 15 months of ceasing production. As far back as 2001, the U.S .mining giant clocked a first in “re-establishing” native jarrah trees in Western Australia, where it operates a bauxite mine.
“One of the reasons people struggle to think that mining can be nature-positive is because you think, ‘Well, you disturb this land, then it must be ruined forever,’” says Dhawan. “But actually, through good techniques, there’s a way to bring it back to at least the same, if not better, health.”
Scientists may argue with that logic. Some ecosystems are so fragile that they can never be returned to their former state – extinct species being the ultimate example of such irreversibility.
Another challenge is that ICMM’s members only account for a third of global mining. Many of the worst environmental abuses are carried out by small-scale or illegal miners, who operate beyond the reach of law enforcers or – in some cases – with their active collusion.
Over the last decade or so, illegal mining incursions in Brazil’s parks and other protected areas has increased threefold, according to satellite data published in the journal Nature. For the country’s indigenous areas, the rate of increase is five times higher.
ICMM’s reach extends beyond its immediate members, Dhawan argues. The council also includes 38 affiliated industry associations, which represent a further 2,000 or so companies. That said, these affiliates fall outside ICMM’s mandatory membership requirements, such as not operating on World Heritage Sites.
To resolve this lack of direct influence, ICMM pushes governments and other public agencies to strengthen pro-nature rules and regulations, says Dhawan. For instance, the council recently worked closely with the United Nation to introduce a new industry-wide standard on tailings waste.
With durable materials endlessly recyclable, could the day come when we won’t need to extract further metals and minerals?
Not according to Litvin, who points out that it will be many years before big quantities of many of the required metals become available for recycling, with most EV batteries far from reaching the end of their first life.
The IEA estimates that, by 2040, recycled copper, lithium, nickel and cobalt from spent batteries could reduce demand for fresh extraction of these minerals by only 10%.
Dhawan agrees, and points out that even a 100% recycling rate would not get “anywhere close” to meeting expected demand.
Manufacturing the volume of electric cars, wind turbines, and so forth needed to keep the global temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius by 2030, for example, will require copper and aluminium production to increase by 60% and 50%, respectively, according to Wood Mackenzie.
His conclusion? Oxymoron or not, “nature-positive mining” warrants talking about. Like “net-zero” for carbon, he hopes it will have a galvanising effect. “The sooner we can get that into the vernacular of how everybody talks about nature,” he argues, “the better it will be to spur action.”