Embracing the Energy Transition: Balancing Climate, Land, and Water Security

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The urgency of mitigating climate change has never been more palpable, especially with the knowledge of how intertwined it is with global geopolitical stability. This calls for immediate measures across all sectors. Here, we delve into the metals and mining sector’s pivotal role in addressing climate concerns, its contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, and the opportunities to foster sustainable changes.

The Mining Sector’s Environmental Footprint

The metals and mining industry is a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. To break it down:

  • Steel production attributes to 7%.
  • Aluminum production contributes 2%.
  • Other metal productions, including mining and processing of critical materials, make up the remaining percentage.

It’s essential to note that refining and smelting processes for most metals are the dominant contributors to these emissions. Moreover, countries housing these refineries and smelters have the electricity mix determine their emission levels. Presently, a considerable portion of these metals and minerals undergo refinement in nations heavily reliant on coal-based grids, notably China.

Different minerals have varying emission scales. Aluminum, cobalt, nickel, silicon, and rare earth elements, for instance, exhibit notably high energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Notably, aluminum’s demand in the energy sector is majorly driven by solar photovoltaic (87%) and wind (10%). Conversely, energy storage technologies, particularly batteries, primarily fuel the demand for cobalt, graphite, lithium, and nickel.

The Silver Lining: Renewable Energy Technologies

Amidst these challenges, renewable energy technologies shine as a beacon of hope. Despite their high mineral intensity, their greenhouse gas emissions are only a fraction compared to fossil fuel technologies. For a perspective, the emissions generated from mineral production and the operation of clean energy technologies equate to just 6% of those emanating from coal and gas-based generation.

Battery electric vehicles, even with their increased mineral requirements, notably produce much fewer emissions over their lifecycle compared to their internal combustion engine counterparts.

Harnessing Opportunities to Reduce Emissions

There’s potential to decrease mineral mining and processing emissions through heightened energy efficiency and a transition to cleaner fuels and low-carbon electricity. Testament to this is the Canadian mining firm, First Quantum Minerals, which has unveiled plans to introduce 430 MW of solar and wind power for its copper mining operations in Zambia. Similarly, mining colossus, Anglo American, has sealed renewable energy agreements to cater to its power needs for various operations in Chile, Brazil, and Peru. Their innovations don’t end there – they’ve also debuted a hybrid hydrogen- and battery-powered mine haul truck.

Tackling End-of-Life Management

End-of-life management is a cornerstone in emissions reduction. By reusing, repurposing, and recycling, emissions tied to mineral mining can be considerably cut down. For example, secondary aluminum recycling can result in a carbon footprint that’s just 5% of primary aluminum production’s footprint. While strides are being made in recycling, there’s a need to overcome challenges like ensuring mineral scrap availability and maintaining material purity.

Addressing Land Use and Biodiversity Concerns

Mining’s environmental implications are profound. It’s not limited to mines; the vicinity also houses waste dumps, water ponds, and industrial processing infrastructures. The past two decades have witnessed metal mining encroaching into biodiverse ecosystems, leading directly and indirectly to deforestation. A concerning 71% of global direct mining-related deforestation is attributable to coal and gold.

Mining’s Collateral Damage

Beyond forests, mining impacts other biodiverse ecosystems such as grasslands, wetlands, and aquatic environments. This results in soil erosion, water and soil pollution, and poses threats to endangered species. These environmental repercussions often culminate in conflicts between mining corporations, local communities, and conservation groups.

The Overarching Issue of Waste

Mining’s by-products, in the form of waste, have raised significant concerns. In 2016 alone, metal and mineral extraction churned out over 70 billion metric tons of waste rock and over 8 billion tons of tailings. With dwindling ore grades, waste volume per mineral unit has surged. Forecasts suggest that copper, nickel, manganese, and lithium mining could potentially produce nearly a trillion tons of combined waste from 2020 to 2050.

An Integrated Approach for a Sustainable Future

While the mining sector plays a critical role in the global energy transition, it’s imperative to address its environmental footprint. This necessitates a holistic approach that encompasses reducing emissions, championing renewable technologies, and implementing sustainable end-of-life management practices.

In conclusion, the path forward requires striking a balance between tapping into the benefits of the mining sector and fostering sustainable practices that safeguard our planet for future generations.