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In Pursuit of Sustainable Mining Practices: Challenges and Opportunities

In Pursuit of Sustainable Mining Practices Challenges and Opportunities

2016, the United Nations released a “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” with multiple SDGs. The United Nations has emphasised its dedication to achieving sustainable economic, social, and environmental development in a harmonised and cohesive approach. In sustainable development, we think about humankind’s growth, prosperity, and future generations. “Sustainability, ensuring the future of life on Earth, is an infinite game, an endless expression of generosity on behalf of all,” wrote American environmentalist Paul Hawken in his book “Blessed Unrest.”

But what is “Sustainable Mining,” and why are we concerned about it? A new report by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) has marked the mining industry as the “fourth largest driver of deforestation.” How is sustainability related to mining, and how can we maintain sustainability in the mining industry? Let us have a closer look.

Why is Mining a Concern for Sustainability?

  • The Amazon is frequently called the “lungs of the Earth” due to its extensive forests that emit oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide. Are we respecting its contribution? Between 2005 and 2015, mining activities in the Brazilian Amazon led to the deforestation of 2 million hectares (12,000 square kilometres), accounting for approximately 9% of the total forest loss in the Amazon during that decade. Of this deforestation, 98,300 hectares (983 square kilometres), or 8%, occurred within mining concessions. These issues demand urgent implementation of sustainable mining.
  • There is more. If you are curious about how much forest has been destroyed through mining, here is a report from the World Bank. In 2015, there were 1,539 Mines in Forest Areas (MFAs) globally, making up 44 per cent of all large-scale operational mines. So, 44% of all mines in the world have been built by cutting forests that used to serve us valuable oxygen. Additionally, 1,301 MFAs were under development, and 525 were nonoperational. Sustainability in the mining industry is crucial to address these problems.
  • In the East Asia and Pacific region, 44 percent of all mining activities are forest-related. Although South Asia has fewer MFAs, 54 percent of its mines are classified as forest mines.
  • So, which mines cause the most deforestation? Gold and coal. Over the past two decades, these two resources alone have led to an estimated 6,877 square kilometres (4,273 square miles) of forest loss.
  • A research paper titled “A pantropical assessment of deforestation caused by industrial mining” by Giljum Stefan, Victor Maus, Nikolas Kuschnig, and others presents a grave scenario of mining’s negative impacts. To illustrate where industrial mine expansion resulted in the most significant deforestation between 2000 and 2019, they assessed the entire biome. They found that 3,264 square kilometres of forest were directly lost due to industrial mining, with 80% of this deforestation occurring in just four countries: Indonesia, Brazil, Ghana, and Suriname.

Figure 1: Distributions of Mines around the Globe

What is Sustainable Mining?

Sustainable mining is a practice that aims to minimise the negative environmental, economic, and social impacts of mining activities. It also focuses on limiting extraction rates to ensure that the needs of future generations are not compromised. However, sustainable mining is still a faraway dream!

Implementation of Sustainable Mining: Challenges and Opportunities

In his book “How to Fix a Broken Planet,” Julian Cribb wrote, “By making the right changes in our own lives, we can help to repair the world we live in and hand it, unbroken, to our children’s children.” It is our duty not to give up. Sustainable mining may be a far-off dream, but we can at least try. Here are the challenges and opportunities humankind will face in implementing Sustainable Mining.

Challenges

As estimated in 2020, more than 61 billion tonnes of fossil fuels, metal ores, and non-metallic minerals are extracted from the Earth annually. Everything we use today needs a lot of mining products. For instance, telephones use up to 42 distinct minerals, such as aluminium, copper, gold, beryllium, talc, iron, silica, limestone, silver, and wollastonite. Your computer needs at least 30 mining products. The expected growth of the mining industry is vast. Grand View Research has estimated the size of the global mining equipment market to be USD 141.31 billion in 2023, with a projected expansion at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.2% from 2023 to 2030.

Figure 2: The Statistics for the United States Mining Equipment Market

  • The demand for mining products will always remain the same. So, implementing sustainable practices throughout such a vast global industry is practically impossible.
  • It will require massive investment from governments of different countries and international organisations.
  • In Australia alone, during 2020-21, the mining sector generated 620 million tonnes of waste, 44 times greater than the amount of municipal waste produced. Managing such a vast amount of waste is nearly impossible. The disposal of mine waste directly into oceans, rivers, and streams threatens marine ecosystems, fisheries, and the communities reliant on them.
  • Ensuring fair labour practices and respecting the rights of affected communities is only sometimes possible.
  • Inconsistencies or lack of stringent regulations and enforcement mechanisms in some regions can hinder the adoption of sustainable mining practices.

But can we at least bring some extent of the mining industry under sustainable mining practices? Let’s explore.

How Can We Implement Sustainable Mining?
  • Mining companies must prioritise environmental protection by minimising habitat destruction, reducing pollution, and implementing effective waste management practices.
  • The government must implement rules and regulations to control the environmental effects of mining industries.
  • Companies should involve communities in decision-making processes, provide fair compensation for land use, and contribute to local development projects.
  • Investing in innovative technologies can help reduce mining operations’ environmental footprint. This includes adopting cleaner energy sources, implementing efficient water recycling systems, and utilising advanced extraction methods.
  • After mining activities cease, companies should rehabilitate and restore affected landscapes to their original state as much as possible. This may involve reforestation, soil remediation, and habitat restoration efforts.
  • Sustainable mining requires long-term planning that considers the needs of future generations. Companies should assess their activities’ long-term environmental and social impacts and develop strategies to mitigate risks.

Ray of Hope!

In every darkness, there is a light.

  • The worldwide market for mining waste management is expected to increase from 40 billion tons in 2024 to 232.34 billion tons by 2032, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 2.7%.
  • In Ecuador, mining projects must register environmentally during exploration and submit an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for a license.
  • In the Philippines, biodiversity and EIAs are required for pre-exploration.
  • Restoration plans in Spain and the Philippines aim to return areas to their original state and are prerequisites for mining licenses.
  • Governments globally enforce waste management standards to mitigate pollution, with Mexico using a plan framework and the US using water discharge permits.

So, the world is trying. Achieving sustainable mining is an ambitious goal, and we hope to achieve it very soon.

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