Around the world, mining activity brings environmental and social changes to local communities. Many of those communities are also at the forefront of the climate crisis. Whether it be the nomadic pastoralist Turkana tribe living near the development of the ﬁrst oil production in Kenya or the Innu and Inuit in Labrador near the Voisey’s Bay nickel mine, the intersection of mining impacts and climate change exacerbates negative changes and limits the beneﬁts from mining. Community well-being can be affected by environmental changes which in turn cause social changes. Extreme rain, storms and flooding can lead to tailings dam failures or contaminate community water sources. Longer and more frequent droughts may put further pressure on community land access and agricultural and pastoral livelihoods already affected by mining. Even if communities use income from mining activity to support and practice traditional lifestyles, changes to ice roads and flora and fauna related to climate changes may make it harder for them to do so.
Mining activity is inextricably linked to both the causes and solutions of the climate crisis. Mining processes contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. In Australia, for example, the mining sector consumes 500 petajoules of energy per year, which amounts to approximately 10% of the country’s total energy use, according to the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). The mining industry is working to reduce GHG emissions by moving to renewable energy sources and reduce its environmental footprint through innovation and improved technology. However, it is not possible to eliminate all environmental impacts of mining. At the same time, mining activity will continue even as we shift to the use of renewable energy. Researchers have estimated that meaningful climate solutions will require renewable energy to make up 60% of global energy use by 2030, and 77% by 2050 (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2019).
Regardless of how quickly we balance our energy mix, a low-carbon economy will require technologies that will drive demand for minerals, including aluminum, bauxite, copper, iron, zinc, lead, rare earths, cobalt, manganese and nickel. In fact, as the World Bank concluded in its Climate Smart Mining initiative, “the technologies assumed to populate the clean energy shift are in fact signiﬁcantly MORE material intensive in their composition than current traditional fossil-fuel-based energy supply systems” (World Bank, 2017.) Recycling minerals will not meet this growing demand, and we will continue to rely on mining of the relevant minerals and metals (IISD).
Solutions to the climate crisis will require increased mining activity in vulnerable, climate-stressed areas, further complicating the relationship between mining activity and climate change. Data from the U.S. Geological Survey shows that a signiﬁcant portion of the minerals needed will come from communities that are remote and more often vulnerable. For example, already 65% of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country where communities are particularly vulnerable to environmental and social impacts of both mining and climate change. The World Bank conﬁrms that “while the growing demand for minerals and metals provides economic opportunities for resource-rich developing countries and private sector entities alike, signiﬁcant challenges will likely emerge if the climate-driven clean energy transition is not managed responsibly and sustainably.”
Responsible mining activity must be a central part of our response to the climate crisis. If we develop renewable energies in a way that continues to create negative environmental and social impacts, how clean will that energy be? These concerns are already being raised by NGOs and civil society groups: “as demand for these scarce minerals skyrockets, the associated environmental and human impacts are likely to rise steeply as well. We have a timely opportunity to scale up our dependence on clean, renewable energy sources, while scaling back our dependence on dirty mining.” (Earthworks, 2019).
Responsible mining in the new energy economy will require collective action from industry, government, civil society and communities and focus should be placed on climate-stressed communities affected by extractive development. There are several ways that stakeholders are supporting this.
1. Resources for innovation
The World Bank’s Climate Smart Mining Facility is a $50-million fund that provides ﬁnancing for initiatives that “help resource-rich developing countries beneﬁt from the increasing demand for minerals and metals, while ensuring the mining sector is managed in a way that minimizes the environmental and climate footprint.” (WorldBank, 2017.)
2. Global collective action
Rio Tinto has publicly acknowledged climate change, endorsed the Paris Agreement and published data on GHG reduction in line with internal targets. Rio Tinto has also highlighted the importance of collective action with particular industry associations and has publicly laid out its strategy for driving industry commitment. This approach is evident in its September 2019 announcement of a memorandum of understanding with China’s largest steel producer, China Baowu Steel Group and Tsinghua University, to explore ways to develop and implement new methods to reduce carbon emissions and improve environmental performance across the steel value chain.
3. Responsible supply chain initiatives for key metals and minerals, such as the Global Battery Alliance
Within the GBA, the NGO RESOLVE has launched LiFT –Sustainable Lithium for a Responsible Energy Transition to “to catalyze and accelerate action towards a socially responsible, environmentally sustainable, and innovative battery value chain and optimize the contribution of sustainable lithium to a responsible global energy transition.” LiFT is designed to align with and ﬁt into existing upstream initiatives like the Mining Association of Canada’s Toward Sustainable Mining and downstream responsible sourcing initiatives like the Responsible Mining Initiative (developed by end-users including leading electronics companies).
4. Action at the local level
Taking a cross-cutting lens on climate change as communities respond to and manage the impacts of mining, and as they maximize the beneﬁts will ensure that climate change is not an afterthought. For example, how are climate impacts assessed during impact assessment process? When communities receive ﬁnancial beneﬁts and revenues from mining activity, could resources be invested in green business or climate resiliency projects? Climate change should become a critical dimension in all aspects of the relationships between communities, companies, and other stakeholders. Communities can also lead the charge on innovative approaches to managing the impacts of mining and climate change.
CAROLYN BURNS is director of operations at NetPositive, a non-profit that works with diverse stakeholders to help local communities see sustained positive outcomes from mining.
JANE CHURCH is a co-founder and director of collaboration with NetPositive.
For more information, visit www.NetPositiveNR.org.