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The role of mining in mitigating the effects of climate change

The mining industry may be a major contributor to climate change, but it is also playing a vital part in climate change mitigation efforts. Ailbhe Goodbody finds out more

There is no doubt that the mining industry is a contributor to climate change. According to McKinsey, the mining sector is responsible for 4-7% percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions globally. The industry’s Scope 1 and Scope 2 CO2 emissions – respectively, emissions that occur from sources that are controlled or owned by an organisation, and those that are indirect GHG emissions associated with power consumption – amount to 1%, while fugitive methane emissions from coal mining are estimated at 3-6%.

In addition, a significant share of global emissions (28%) would be considered Scope 3, or indirect, emissions, including the combustion of coal.

McKinsey also noted that the threats that mining companies face because of climate change remain urgent: “Forecasts indicate that climate hazards such as heavy precipitation, drought, and heat will get more frequent and intense, increasing the physical challenges to mining operations.”

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines climate change mitigation as “a human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases”. The mining industry is well positioned to contribute to climate change mitigation, according to Doris Hiam-Galvez, senior advisor at Hatch, who has previously spoken to The Intelligent Miner about community engagement.

Doris Hiam-Galvez is senior advisor at Hatch

She explained: “The mining industry generates the materials needed by society and to tackle climate change, such as the materials for wind turbines, solar and overall electrification.”

According to the World Bank Group report, ‘Minerals for Climate Action: The Mineral Intensity of the Clean Energy Transition’, the demand for minerals such as graphite, lithium and cobalt used in clean energy technologies is so high that production would need to increase by nearly 500% by 2050 just to meet requirements. To put it another way, the clean energy transition will be significantly mineral intensive.

An editorial in Nature Geoscience pointed out that while green technologies such as renewable energy generation and storage will require an expansion in mining, mineral extraction uses a lot of energy and is associated with greenhouse gas emissions from numerous sources. The article recommended that “in order to evaluate and implement climate mitigation strategies, accurate accounting of energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions is needed.”

Steps to improve mining as we currently know it

The mining industry produces a lot of greenhouse gas emissions, but there are several ways the industry is taking steps to reduce these. One of the most visible efforts is the electrification of mining equipment with green energy to take the place of equipment that consumes diesel or gasoline.

“Breaking down silos is also key to significantly reducing the amount of energy used by the mining industry, by integrating and optimising the entire mine and the process plant for the specific characteristics of the ore,” said Hiam-Galvez.

“This has been demonstrated already in industry and results in increased production and equivalent reduction in energy. The same approach is being applied to the whole value chain and optimising the logistics, resulting in cost reduction.”

She noted that preconcentration techniques can also improve efficiency by removing gangue early in the process. There is a thorough explanation of preconcentration in this article, which explains that the term “encompasses a multitude of technologies and techniques that can be used as standalone or combined to reject waste material at strategic points in the mining process. The aim is to optimize mining, mineral processing and metallurgical extraction relative to the available inputs and desired outputs, thus maximizing asset value.”

Hiam-Galvez added: “The waste is left in the mine before energy intensive and expensive comminution and beneficiation processes.”

In addition, she pointed to the use of coal in steel manufacturing as one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. “There are efforts to eliminate the use of coal for steel production by using green hydrogen, and that’s going to make a big difference,” she said.

“There are also some geological structures that could be used for carbon sequestration, as some rocks react or trap CO2. This could provide sufficient scale to capture CO2 to slow down global warming.”

A good example of a mining company investigating carbon sequestration is Talon Metals’ Tamarack nickel project in Minnesota, US. In February this year, the US Department of Energy awarded US$2.2 million of research and development funding to Talon Metals and its joint venture partner Rio Tinto to explore the carbon storage potential at the Tamarack project. The project includes a large bowl of porous ultramafic rock, and has the potential to safely store hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon in solid form through natural reactions.

In summary, mining provides the materials to tackle climate change. The industry is working at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and potentially could also become a key player in carbon capture; but mitigation measures need to start at the source.

The mining industry generates the materials needed by society and to tackle climate change, such as the materials for wind turbines, solar and overall electrification. Image: Unsplash

Reimagining mining completely

Could we rethink the way we mine to reduce the industry’s impact on the environment? “That’s really key,” suggested Hiam-Galvez. “The entire mining value chain has to be reinvented to drive for efficiency, eliminating polluting emissions, zero waste and to protect the environment. If waste is generated, make products out of it. The focus has to be on value creation, and for that we require a higher level of innovation.”

However, she also pointed to the issue of water usage. “50% of copper concentrates come from Chile and Peru where there’s water scarcity, and climate change has made it become worse,” she observed. “At the same time, this region has the best solar radiation potential in the world, as in many other places in the same situation, such as Australia and Africa.”

Solar energy can be used to solve the water shortage issues by desalinating sea water.

Hiam-Galvez pointed out that some regions could lower their cost of operations. “Solar energy in combination with wind and with other methods is still a good option, even in the Canadian Arctic,” she said. “Battery costs are also coming down. You have to do a whole evaluation of climate change effects on the regions we operate and prioritise the climate when making decisions for capital allocation.”

She suggested that the industry needs to start thinking strategically and look at innovative solutions that may even be more economically viable. “That’s defined solutions to treat water, such as concentrated solar power (CSP) technology for the direct desalination of seawater with solar energy, and then also make products out of the brine,” she explained.

“The new technologies that are coming up are much better than the conventional reverse osmosis process, which uses high energy and costs a lot of money, and the brine has to go back to the sea where it disrupts biodiversity.”

She cited the Neom ‘smart city’ project in north-western Saudi Arabia as an example of adapting ‘solar water’ technology to a region. The city, which is being built in an area with no river, will meet all its water needs through direct desalination of sea water with solar energy using the latest CSP technology. In addition, the brine generated as a by-product of desalination will be processed to extract the minerals and metals in the brine as a sustainable method of dealing with the waste, and 100% of the wastewater from the city will be recycled for use in irrigation.

The Neom ‘smart city’ project in Saudi Arabia will meet all its water needs through direct desalination of sea water with solar energy using the latest CSP technology

People as catalysts for change

Mining companies need to consider whether they are having a positive social impact in the regions where they operate. “The thought process when planning [a mine] has to change,” said Hiam-Galvez. “This means rethinking investment decisions on the regional scale versus just your project scale. It means taking the environment before and after mining into consideration right at the beginning of a project.

“In the past, as we know, there has been little consideration of the social aspects and environment issues. We all know what needs to be done – but how?”

She has developed a planning method called designing sustainable prosperity (DSP) that involves all key parties and considers all aspects of the mining investment on a regional scale, which enables the creation of a future sustainable society in mining regions.

“The mining investor transitions from being perhaps the only provider of income in some cases into a catalyst for the prosperity of the region, and leaves behind a prosperous economy, with an improved environment and a better quality of life,” she told me. “This new method determines specific products, services and technologies that are ideally suited to the region to diversify the region’s economy so that there is life after mining. The education system is adapted to provide the skills and tools to support this diversified economy.”

Hiam-Galvez was the chair of the CIM 2022 conference in Vancouver in May, and presented a keynote on the topic ‘Mining Roadmap for Future Generations’. She advised that mining move from the ‘slow road’ to the fast one towards a sustainable future by following three phases: first, DSP; second, rethinking the mining industry; and third, adaptive change.

Education is a key requirement for the success of DSP, and Hiam-Galvez also thinks that education has an important role in developing the skills needed for mining in the energy transition.

“There is a lot more than just formal education,” she noted. “We also need apprenticeships, technical schools and to spend more time on what’s needed. Some mining professors have never worked in a mine, and they have limited understanding of the industry challenges. The key question is, what skills will be needed in the future? Not just for mining operations, but also for the jobs in the region after mining has ended.”

Doris Hiam-Galvez presenting a keynote at the CIM conference in May 2022. Image: CIM

The near future

Hiam-Galvez thinks that in the next 5-10 years, the industry needs to focus on the critical materials needed for the energy transition while being mindful of the environment. “That means we must focus on the things that needed to be developed,” she said. “But if it’s not good for the environment, we have to do it differently. Of course, electrification of fleets and the shift to green energy has started in mining, but it has to continue and has to be economically viable.”

Regarding climate change mitigation, her stance is that the most important thing is for us to take action sooner rather than later. “We really have to go beyond in order to make a difference. And we can make a difference if we all do our little bit together,” she said.

“There is a lot of talk from all kinds of organisations, but we are talking to each other to death,” she added. “It’s time for real action as we don’t have much time, it’s quite urgent. We are seeing disasters and extreme weather happening in many regions of the world. It’s a big risk for mining operations, for cities, for all of us.

“Perhaps people do not understand climate change yet – although there’s so much written, so much work published. If we really understood the risks, we’d be doing something about it.”

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