Environment People

Meeting the Sustainable Development Goals through mining

What role can the mining industry play in delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goals? Carly Leonida asks two companies for whom creating positive social and environmental change is part of their very fabric

In 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by the United Nations (UN) member states. At the heart of the agenda are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of interlinked objectives which, together, form a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future”.

The SDGs act as both a call to action and a nucleus around which sustainable strategies and programs can be built. The 169 targets laid out beneath those goals provide a steer for global efforts around social, economic and environmental change.

What does this have to do with mining? I hear you ask. Well, as corporate citizens, companies have an important role to play in helping to achieve the SDGs and in highlighting their importance.

The mining sector, in particular, can play an integral role in accelerating progress towards the SDGs; the industry provides the raw minerals and metals required for industrial and socio-economic development, for the electrification of transport and power transmission, low-carbon energy technologies, food production (fertilisers)… essentially, everything that society needs in order to build a sustainable future.

It’s also worth remembering that the primary extraction of minerals and metals often takes place in developing regions that have poor infrastructure, sanitation or healthcare provisions, unstable governance and, in some cases, are ravaged by civil unrest.

In choosing to invest in these jurisdictions and by applying environmentally and socially-conscious business practices, mining companies and their collaborators can provide a lifeline to communities, helping to lift people out of poverty and empower the restoration of local environments.       

I wanted to find out more about the potential the mining industry has to effect change in line with the SDGs, so turned to two companies who have made them central to their purpose and strategies.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Image: United Nations

WSP: designing and delivering better mines

Since April 2019, Canada-based global consultant, WSP, has been a signatory of the UN Global Compact. Its participants commit to setting in motion changes to their business and incorporating the UN Global Compact’s Ten Principles into their overall strategy, culture and day-to-day operations.

“We reported progress related to this commitment in 2020 and will continue to do so annually,” said Kevin Beauchamp, WSP’s Global Director of Mining. “Through this pledge, WSP has reiterated its commitment to contribute to the SDGs.

“We apply our expertise to help solve sustainable development challenges that are important to our clients. Many of our projects in mining contribute directly to the SDGs. We see firms like ours as playing an important role in advancing the SDGs, often expressed through a focus on environmental, social governance (ESG), promoting responsible development through our advice and planning, and then engineering and implementing solutions that continually improve outcomes for all.”

WSP’s greatest impact on sustainability is through its services and advice to clients. In March 2022, the company announced the ambitions of its 2022-2024 Global Strategic Action Plan, which is underpinned by a commitment to ESG matters.

“As an advisor in the green transition, we set the example in how we operate our business and in the services we provide to our clients,” Beauchamp told me. “The commitments we have made to ESG are fundamental and non-negotiable and are driven by our dedication to leading with integrity, empowering our diverse community, and leveraging our expertise for the benefit of all our stakeholders.”

Industry and corporations are recommended to map their performance and achievements to relevant SDGs by adopting the notion: think globally, act locally. This is exactly what the team at WSP is doing.

Beauchamp explained: “We operate as one global mining business, blending global expertise with local expertise, so that the best ideas from around the world combine with local knowledge and context to put together solutions that actually work, that challenge the status quo and create a better way for mines of the future to operate.

The metals and minerals that mining provides are critical components in low-carbon energy technologies such as photovoltaic panels. Image: Derek Sutton/ Unsplash

Speaking the same language around sustainability

Aligning with the SDGs also provides a common language to describe the objectives that consultants like WSP support their clients in achieving; they provide a framework to describe how projects help the environment, local communities and stakeholders, as well as safely producing the commodities that the world needs.

“This has inspired us to develop more diverse teams, and bring in new expertise, such as in the area of human rights,” said Beauchamp. “Combining the expertise of tailings engineers, with hydrologists, with social scientists, for example, really lends itself to coming up with new approaches to old challenges.

“As we work closely with client teams, these multi-disciplinary experts really elevate what a mining project must consider to be deemed successful. Considering the SDGs ultimately results in the design of better mines.

“We’re also seeing the consistent desire and openness to incorporate ESG principles into all of our work. Often, it’s a real partnership with our clients, exploring new ideas and pushing the extent of what we can achieve together to minimise impacts and maximise opportunities.”

He added that it’s encouraging to see some of the brightest minds coming together to define new best practices, measure success beyond profit, and look at things through a fresh perspective.

“Some of the work coming out of the water space, for example, is truly innovative,” Beauchamp said. “The increased focus on water stewardship means taking a regional approach to water, resulting in a whole new array of opportunities to consider.

“These range from the equitable use of water, to beneficial reuse of mine waters, to gaining efficiencies, while factoring in and understanding the potential impacts of a changing climate on the water needs and availability.

“These types of multi-disciplinary challenges make it fun to work together. They create a sense of moving forward and help clients to progress their projects in the most responsible manner. This sense of purpose has proven to be very motivational for our teams.”

The mining industry is not only contributing the raw materials needed to combat climate change, but companies are also taking action within their own operations. Image: Meg Nielson/Unsplash

Considering more than just mining

The world needs mining to create prosperity. In addition to providing the critical minerals and metals required for the green energy transition, it can also offer well paid jobs, elevate national economies through economic contributions, and can support communities with much needed infrastructure, clean water and power.

In designing mines for closure and post-closure at the prefeasibility stage, WSP now looks at how operations can continue to provide economic benefits and support communities for the long term.

“Our clients have a framework for talking about the good that a project can do for communities, and that’s something we’re proud to be a part of through our services,” said Beauchamp.

“One area where we see the need to accelerate progress is in SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production). Responsible production is well in hand, but responsible consumption with a focus on circular economy and getting the most out of these precious metals that take so much capital and effort to produce, is where there’s room for progress.

“This is an area where we, as an industry, can play a role in highlighting, not only where these materials come from, but also that we should be judicious in how we use them and consider their full lifecycle.”

There is much work being done in this area, and WSP is working on some exciting projects like leading the engineering, procurement, construction and management (EPCM) of Igneo Technologies’ new e-waste metals recovery facility in the US. The reprocessing of mine tailings or adding steps into mineral processing flowsheets to extract additional metals are also examples.

In other areas, for instance, SDG 13 (climate action) the mining industry is not only contributing the raw materials for this, but companies are also taking action within their own operations.

“Our work with the Mining Association of Canada on their new climate change adaptation guide for member companies and all those now adhering to their Towards Sustainable Mining protocol, are the types of fundamental steps that will make a real difference in accelerating action in how mines are operated and governed,” said Beauchamp.

“Our teams at WSP find it so rewarding to work on these types of guidelines as well as advising mining companies how to adhere to them, and then bringing those concepts and plans into real world implementation with our engineering and science-based solutions.”

The power module being lifted into the hydrogen heavy-haul electric truck being assembled at Anglo American’s Mogalakwena PGMs mine in South Africa. Image: Anglo American

Anglo American: reimagining mining to improve lives

For mining activities to deliver maximum contributions in line with the SDGs requires collaborative thinking and action; every company operating in and around the industry can play a role in creating positive social and environmental change.

Global diversified mining company, Anglo American, has developed a number of programmes which support delivery of the SDGs and is proud of the role it plays in achieving them.

“By their very nature, the SDGs span economic and ESG imperatives,” explained Laura Brooks, Group Head of Sustainability Integration and Impact. “We use them as a basis for engaging with key stakeholders to improve accountability and trust, and also increasingly consider them as a lens through which to view our footprint and broader impacts. By looking closely at practical issues in conjunction with the SDGs we’ve identified real opportunities to make a difference to the environment and communities in which we operate.”

The SDGs inform Anglo American’s Sustainable Mining Plan (which is also an integral part of the company’s FutureSmart Mining programme). The Sustainable Mining Plan fosters innovation and delivers step-change results across the entire mining value chain and sets a vision for 2030 with clear targets that reimagine mining to improve people’s lives.

“Our Sustainable Mining Plan is built around three Global Sustainability Pillars which are intrinsically aligned to the SDGs,” said Brooks.

Containing three ambitious stretch goals each, these pillars are:

  • Healthy environment: maintaining a healthy environment by creating waterless, carbon-neutral mines and delivering positive biodiversity outcomes.
  • Thriving communities: building thriving communities with better health, education, and levels of employment.
  • Trusted corporate leader: developing trust as a corporate leader, providing ethical value chains and improved accountability to the communities that Anglo American works with.

Brooks added: “The global stretch goals and pillars are deliberately ambitious and designed to challenge us to lead and innovate. We’re putting all our efforts into delivering them between now and 2030 and have set clear targets for each area, which are outlined in our 2021 sustainability report .

Anglo American’s largest contributions to the SDGs are centred around the provision of work and economic growth.

“We also respond to the socio-economic development needs of our host communities and focus on contributing to a healthy environment,” said Brooks “Aligning our Sustainable Mining Plan and our three Global Sustainability Pillars with the SDGs has enabled us to identify opportunities that will positively transform how our stakeholders experience our business, both locally and globally, and ultimately leave a much-reduced physical footprint.”

School children at the two-day CyberFirst session, a collaboration between the UK’s GCHQ and Anglo American’s Crop Nutrients business. Photo: Anglo American

Creating tangible results

In aligning with the SDGs, Anglo American has found it can:

  • Tackle disease and improve quality of life by investing in community health and wellbeing. Its health and wellbeing programmes in host communities respond to the SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing) sub goals where Anglo American works through partnerships to achieve positive health outcomes for vulnerable groups such as women and children.

“In Chile, for example, we’re working with INTA, the national institution for nutrition, on a pilot project to help reduce childhood obesity,” Brooks told me. “In South Africa, we have partnered with Right to Care on providing a convenient and accessible vaccination service to communities in Limpopo, North-west and Northern Cape provinces, with the aim of creating equitable access to quality healthcare for all.”

  • Ensure its mines are managed to the highest standards, thereby mitigating the environmental and social impacts of mining, but also driving improvements to peoples’ lives. For example, the company has taken a leadership position in developing and implementing the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) which has developed, what is widely regarded as the most robust sustainability standard for the mining sector.
  • Support regional development in the places where it operates. “Our Collaborative Regional Development (CRD) vision to 2030 foresees the creation of initiatives aimed at delivering socio-economic change on a regional scale, each with a unique set of partners, connected through a common purpose of improving lives,” explained Brooks.

“For example, we have developed a pioneering cyber security apprenticeship at our Crop Nutrients business. The two-year programme is one of the outcomes of our CRD work in the UK, where cyber security was identified as a potential high-value cluster to support. The programme will see seven trainees learn how to thwart a range of cyber security threats and also learn general business skills, while gaining valuable experience of working in a large multinational organisation.”

  • Uphold a series of SDG accountability dialogues in jurisdictions where it operates. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, Anglo American has continued consulting with external stakeholders – including local and national governments – about how it measures its contributions to the SDGs, and to assess the potential for partnership.
  • Bring much needed water and sanitation to communities, and address climate change by finding new ways to reduce its carbon footprint. In November 2022, Anglo American secured a desalinated water supply for the Los Bronces copper mine in Chile. This will also provide clean water to approximately 20,000 people in communities local to the operation, in addition to supplying more than 45% of Los Bronces’ needs.
At its Los Bronces copper mine in Chile, Anglo American has built a pilot solar photovoltaic plant incorporating 256 solar panels over a tailings pond. The project will help reduce the mine’s CO2 emissions. Image: Anglo American

Collaborating for maximum impact

Meeting the SDG targets requires collaboration with a broad cross-section of stakeholders, and companies like Anglo American are in a unique position to support host governments in meeting the SDGs.

“The third of our Global Sustainability Pillars focuses on becoming a ‘trusted corporate leader’ in jurisdictions of operation,” Brooks explained. “This demonstrates how mining companies can support national and international accountability around sustainability benchmarks and indices, and also support host countries in progressing towards delivery of the SDGs by 2030.

“We regularly participate in accountability dialogues, such as the UN Global Compact Young SDG Innovators – a nine-month programme connecting business leaders, policy makers, civil society, and academia to act on the SDGs.

“Our CRD model also presents effective ways of partnering with community representatives, faith groups, businesses, government, academics, and NGOs towards international objectives like the SDGs.

“We feel that the Anglo American approach demonstrates how stakeholders can work towards ambitious shared goals like the SDGs, and how the mining sector is at the heart of paving the way towards the sustainable future embodied in these goals.”

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