Dan Smith – Common ground in sustainability hot topics

School of Geography, Geology & The Environment, University of Leicester, Leicester, LE1 7RH, UK, djs40@le.ac.uk

There are a number of “hot topics” in the mining sector at present. Different stakeholders – investors, policymakers, academics, impacted communities – present a range of views as to what the mining industry needs to do to contribute to sustainable development, and global events and geopolitics pose further strategic challenges. There is a risk that these different visions of the mining sector pull in different directions, and create confusion, not clarity. There are certain areas in which new tools, or consistent approaches, may help meet more than one of the emergent challenges.

Provenance and chain of custody: The supply chains of metals factor in to a number of themes – criticality, security of supply, ethical sourcing, life cycle analysis, and more. In truth, we are able to review the sustainability and legality of producers, but not their products. Metal commodities are processed and homogenised through complex, multinational supply chains. We need tools that allow us to source and trace metals from ore to waste and ideally reuse.

Climate change: Mining companies are increasingly obliged to report on their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, their mitigation efforts, the risks that climate change poses to operations and finance. However, metals are vital for the transition to lower carbon and more circular economies. Sustainability reporting at present offers significant flexibility, particularly with respect to Scope 3 emissions, and it is challenging to see the true contributions of metal production and use to both causing and combatting CO2 emissions. Transparency and ideally uniformity are needed in disclosures. The TCFD approach to reporting in terms of financial risks associated with climate change, rather than CO2 contribution reporting, highlights that energy efficiency is vital, irrespective of whether energy is from fossil fuel or renewable sources.

Deposit quality and intensity: The environmental footprints of deposits are strongly linked to ore grade. The old mantra of “grade is king” continues to ring true; high quality deposits, with good grades and tonnages, in suitable locations, will be vital to supply in an increasingly ESG-aware market. The other route to reducing the CO2 or H2O embedded per metal unit produced is to produce more metals from each tonne of ore. Many of our critical metals are sourced as by-products, but often not by the original extractors, and so they become divorced from the estimation of ESG footprints – both positive and negative.