Mining corporations are making ambitious pledges to decarbonize their operations to decrease economic risk and contribute to the battle against climate change. A significant reduction in the emission profile of mining will be critical to the decarbonization of the global economy.
Image Credit: Ric Campos/Shutterstock.com
The Paris Climate Agreement signed by 195 countries in December 2015 has received a lot of attention in the industrial community. The majority of the region's big mining companies agreed to meet the Paris Agreement's targets, which include committing to zero carbon emissions by 2050 to reduce global warming to 1.5°C.
Mining firms have declared carbon reduction targets ranging from 0% to 30% by 2030. Increased operational efficiency, electrification, and the utilization of renewable energy sources can theoretically make mines carbon-free.
Several major mining corporations have formed sustainability committees, showing that the mining industry is getting on board with corporate reporting and sustainability initiatives. Understanding decarbonization paths and reporting emissions are the first steps toward setting goals for the emission-free mining industry.
Emissions in a Mining Company's Control
Continuous increases in global energy consumption result in increased emissions of CO2, aerosols, methane, and other air pollutants into the environment. Controlling these air pollutants in the environment presents a significant challenge for the mining industry. Reduction in carbon emissions from the mining industry is a key step in the fight against global warming.
The mining sector produces 1.9 to 5.1 gigatons of greenhouse emissions every year. The vast majority of emissions in this industry are caused by volatile coal-bed methane released during coal mining.
According to McKinsey & Co, the mining industry produces 28% of world emissions in terms of direct emissions from operations (Scope 1), indirect emissions from power generation (Scope 2), and value chain emissions (Scope 3).
Most operational emissions (Scope 1 and 2) are within the direct control of mining companies. Fugitive methane emissions from coal mining are an anomaly, as no cost-effective remedies are available now. An additional exception to the rule is the production of CO2 during the calcination of construction materials, such as cement.
Value chain emissions (Scope 3) are harder to control in the mining industry. This involves upstream suppliers that supply copper, steel, and large volumes of concrete for the mining site's construction and downstream consumers who use metals and materials to manufacture heavy-duty products such as bridges, ships, automobiles, and houses.
Value chain emissions in mining can exceed operational emissions. Due to the limited number of options available, many believe that a more comprehensive strategy for managing Scope 3 emissions might be needed.
Large volumes of nitrogen oxide and ozone are released at ground level during industrial mining procedures. The mining industry's development of reservoirs for hydroelectric generating is also directly responsible for methane emissions, which are 20 times more hazardous than CO2.
Many mining sites powered by thermoelectric power plants that burn oil, gas or coal are the biggest contributors to climate change.
How Can Mining Companies Ensure That Their Carbon Reduction Policies Are in Line With Industry Associations?
Mining firms worldwide are attempting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but there are not enough of them to meet the international obligations to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
Among the 30 main mining firms contacted by S&P Global Market Intelligence, just eight have pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The remaining corporations are less ambitious in modifying their plans or are pursuing new climate-related objectives.
Mining companies must ensure that their carbon-reduction policies align with industry standards from an ecosystem standpoint. This is vital to avoid greenwashing, which occurs when companies claim to be devoted to carbon reduction for their reputation but fail to back up their claims with action.
This alignment is required to provide consistent reporting methodologies. Keeping a social license to operate is crucial for many mining firms. This even affects the employees of the company. As a result, huge multinational corporations increasingly seek to be at the forefront of environmental challenges to recruit the best talent.
Mining companies worried about their operating license, long-term reputation, or contribution to decarbonization efforts may start considering more aggressive decarbonization strategies.
Some businesses are already experimenting with new ways to decarbonize energy-intensive processes. For example, in July 2019, BHP announced that it would spend US$400 million over five years on low-emission technology and climate projects, as well as promote collaborations to address Scope 3 emissions.
Rio Tinto expects to invest $1 billion in climate-related projects over the next five years. It has also stopped producing coal, pledged to assess its emission-reduction objectives on an asset-by-asset basis, and joined the Energy Transitions Commission to speed up the decarbonization process.
If the mining industry commits itself to reduce emissions according to the aims of the Paris Agreement, there will be significant growth in low-carbon technologies in the future.
Green-Tech in Mining
Green technology in mining refers to equipment that reduces carbon emissions and mitigates negative environmental effects. Green mining is a transversal concept today for the entire industry, where the world mining scenario is already adapting it to its entire process chain.
Green mining alludes to the sustainability and care of each process, such as efficiency in the extraction of resources, production with less environmental impact, and care of surrounding communities, among other points. Through this new way of mining, it is expected that practices within industries will be optimized and improved to make each process more efficient and conscious.
Leading mining companies want to meet growing demand and reduce their environmental footprint simultaneously. This is due to increasing pressure from society and the opportunities that open up in the course of the introduction of green technologies to reduce costs and increase the efficiency of enterprises.
The uptake of renewable energy in the mining industry is driven by three key instruments – power purchase agreements (PPAs), solar photovoltaics (PV) and mini-power plants.
If a mine is located in a green energy region, it can sign a contract with a utility or independent power generator to purchase renewable energy, reducing its carbon footprint. For example, Antofagasta has announced that by 2020 its copper mine in Zaldivar would be powered by 100% renewable energy.
Some extractive companies support renewable energy by buying green certificates equivalent to the conventional energy they consume. For example, Rio Tinto bought 1.5 TWh green certificates from Rocky Mountain Power to offset electricity consumption at the Kennecott copper mine in the US state of Utah.
Other companies are investing in local clean energy production. For example, the Australian Fortescue Metals Group announced in October 2019 plans to build a 60 MW hybrid PV generation system at the Christmas Creek and Cloudbreak mines.
Some companies build mini-grids with combined energy sources that provide a lower carbon footprint and are available 24 hours a day. For example, Gold Fields is investing $77.59 million in a mini-grid to power the Agnew gold mine in Western Australia.
Diesel-powered loaders transporting metal ores cause underground air pollution. With the invention of the hybrid diesel-electric loader, CanmetMINING (CMIN) and Mining Technologies International (MTI) have reduced toxic gas emissions by 70%. When used in conjunction with a high-efficiency particulate filter, it can achieve a 95% decrease in breathable combustible dust emissions.
Copper is profitably mined only when there is a high concentration in a given area, as the process is both energy-intensive and expensive. Bioleaching is a more efficient and environmentally friendly method for extracting copper from ore.
Copper can be extracted from rocks by microorganisms, eliminating the need for the energy-intensive aspect of traditional mining. Bioleaching ores are placed in acid, where bacteria are added, breaking down the rock and freeing the copper in a liquid form. After that, it is transformed into solid copper using an electrochemical process.
Bioleaching can be used to boost the total metal collected from a mine to 90% by using low-grade materials that are simply discarded.
Finning, the world's largest Caterpillar dealer, has introduced Dynamic Gas Blending (DGB) to the Chilean market, which would reduce pollution from the mining industry. It mixes diesel fuel with liquefied natural gas (LNG), achieving a 30% reduction in CO2 emissions generated by a mining truck.
The introduction of the DGB to the truck fleet of mining companies would contribute to achieving a more efficient and environmentally clean operation, with the same performance, payload and productivity as conventional equipment that operates only with diesel.
Pressure from Regulators
A significant role in decarbonization is played by government policy that constantly tightens greenhouse gas emission standards and increases the cost of greenhouse gas quotas.
As part of their climate plan, 80 countries, which account for almost 75% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, have committed to achieving zero-carbon footprints by 2050-2060. There are now more than 60 carbon pricing initiatives worldwide. From 2026, the EU plans to impose carbon payments on imported products, particularly on steel.
Dialogue with the State is Necessary
The decarbonization of any industry, including the mining and metallurgical industry, is possible only if the business, investors and the state work together as equal partners. In addition to reducing investment risks, the partnership between business, the state and investors brings long-term value and additional benefits for each participant.
Companies benefit from reduced carbon charges, portfolio diversification, access to external financing, the ability to sell low-carbon raw materials, and additional revenue. The state that has created incentives for the development of technologies, in addition to environmental benefits in the form of reduced emissions, receives additional jobs and diversifies the economy.
Global decarbonization is largely dependent on the sustainable mining of minerals and raw materials. The flourishing and healthy mining industry is critical to the global economy and supports the innovation needed to mitigate global warming, protect the environment, and develop the circular economy.
Regardless of the paths taken by mining corporations to decrease carbon emissions, reaching reduction objectives in accordance with the Paris Agreement and satisfying the expectations of a more environmentally conscious population are critical to the industry's long-term viability.
References and Further Readings
Delevingne, Lindsay, et al. "Climate risk and decarbonization: What every mining CEO needs to know." Report McKinsey & Company (2020). Available from: https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Business (Accessed on 23 April 24, 2022)
Deloitte. (2020). The 2030 decarbonization challenge. The path to the future of energy. [Online]. Available at:
https://www2.deloitte.com/global/en.html (Accessed on 23 April 24, 2022)
Fedorov, E. (2021). Metals & mining decarbonization and sector disclosure. [Online]. Available at: https://think.ing.com/articles/metals-mining-decarbonisation-sector-disclosure (Accessed on 23 April 24, 2022)
Immink, H., Louw, R. T., & Brent, A. C. (2018). Tracking decarbonization in the mining sector. Journal of Energy in Southern Africa, 29(1), 14-23. https://doi.org/10.17159/2413-3051/2018/v29i1a3437
Poirier, M. (2016). Metals & mining decarbonization and sector disclosure. [Online]. Available at: https://think.ing.com/articles/metals-mining-decarbonisation-sector-disclosure (Accessed on 23 April 24, 2022)
RioTinto. (2019). Rio Tinto moves to renewable electricity at Kennecott copper. [Online]. Available at: https://www.riotinto.com/en (Accessed on 23 April 24, 2022)
S&P Global. (2020). NET ZERO: Mining faces pressure for net-zero targets as demand rises for clean energy raw materials. [Online]. Available at: https://www.spglobal.com/commodityinsights/en/market-insights/latest-news/coal/072720-mining-faces-pressure-for-net-zero-targets-as-demand-rises-for-clean-energy-raw-materials (Accessed on 23 April 24, 2022)
Wang, X., Ma, L., Wu, J., Xiao, Y., Tao, J., & Liu, X. (2020). Effective bioleaching of low-grade copper ores: Insights from microbial cross experiments. Bioresource Technology, 308, 123273. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biortech.2020.123273