The effects of mining on the environment can be immense. Damage to ecosystems and cultural sites, high carbon emissions, compromised and contaminated soil profiles and high erosion and deforestation mean significant changes are required in order to protect the environment.
Mining companies must adopt measures to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but the path is arduous. Immediate actions to mitigate the costs of transformation require a deep understanding of, and capacity to implement, environmental science.
Australian mining company Rio Tinto extracts, produces and refines iron ore, copper, bauxite, gold and uranium for use in industrial manufacturing, such as for materials like steel for building and engineering, aluminum for cans and aeroplane parts, and uranium for energy generation in nuclear power stations.
However, open-cast mining can lead to air pollution that promotes high carbon emissions, crop damage and compromised health of communities. Beyond this, mine closures can have a continued effect on the environment if not repurposed or rehabilitated.
Cosmos spoke to Philippa Sjoquist, principal advisor of sustainability strategy and development at Rio Tinto, about Rio Tinto’s proposed strategy to address the environmental costs of mining. This is an edited transcript of the interview.
Dr Deborah Devis, Cosmos
Can you tell me why businesses, especially mining businesses, need scientists?
Philippa Sjoquist, principal advisor of sustainability strategy and development at Rio Tinto
Yes, certainly. So, in mining, we employ a wide range of scientists. We have geologists and geochemists that need to identify where the [ore] body is, and what it actually contains; metallurgists that work out how to actually extract that material during the processing phase; hydrologists and hydrogeologists to understand water movement and how it flows; and environmental scientists [to] look at some of the impacts from operations and how to mitigate them. And more recently, we’ve employed more and more data scientists.
So you may be familiar with autonomous haulage, where it’s effectively those very large haul trucks that run themselves. And they generate a huge amount of data on a daily basis. So I need people to be able to take that data, and to understand what it’s saying, to help us inform future decision making, which is a very important role.
But beyond the technical skills that people bring from their different disciplines and expertise, scientists are usually very good problem solvers.
So they’re taught to think in quite a logical and rigorous manner. And you can give them a complex problem. And they usually come up with quite a creative solution to look at all the different angles, and opportunities from that. And they can be quite curious and inquisitive people by nature, as well. And that’s really important to start asking these questions about how does this work? And why does it work as it does?
And in terms of business, that’s really important for business improvement, and that continuous improvement opportunity. So there’s definitely some skills that are cross-functional there.
From my expertise and experience…I started out in the field as an environmental scientist working in operations and doing quite specific fieldwork, then moved into a leadership position, and then into productivity – so how to improve operations performance.
That is a long-term planning – what does it look like for an operation in 50 years’ time and beyond up to 100 years’ time?
I’m currently in a role in strategy, so with a particular focus on sustainability, and what does that look like for the corporation heading forward in the next 10 to 20 years’ time.
So certainly skills that are transferable not only across an industry, but also across different types of industries as well.
So based on what you’re saying, you’ve got these technical skills, you’ve got these creative skills, and your career path definitely doesn’t sound like what people normally think of as a scientist. So how did you choose this career? Why did you choose a career in mining?
Yeah, it’s been a lifelong evolution, so it seems.
So I’ve always been quite curious as to how and why things work. Not only from a built and natural environment perspective, but to look around you and say, well, why is it like that, and what’s in that?
And it sort of culminated when I visited [the] bauxite mine in Weipa on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula. I would have been about 12 years old at that stage. And I remember being handed a soft drink. So it was lemonade and in an aluminium can and [I] was asked: “Do you know where this comes from?”
And it started off a conversation around, well, how does what we were standing on, because we were standing on bauxite, how does that transform into aluminium, which is used for so many different purposes, in the built environment around us? That started off, I guess, a lifelong curiosity around how and why things are made. So how can we actually produce materials for the built environment?
So whether it’s your car, the building where you live, the infrastructure that you use, the electronics that you might have in your phone – but also how do you actually produce that while minimising the impacts to the natural environment, which is particularly important there.
Looking at that environmental cost – because there is one – but we also need these materials. How do you use environmental science to inform that mining practice?
Unlike other industries, such as manufacturing – manufacturing can move operations closer to the city for labour, perhaps closer to water, closer to the energy source – but with mining, we have to work in situ, wherever the ore body may be located.
So with that in mind, we often work in remote locations or in areas that are in sensitive environments. So we work in partnership with a number of different people, including the local community, to ensure that our processes and techniques are evolving and continuously improving as the knowledge improves on environmental science, and mitigation techniques. Well, that’s particularly important there as well.
The way that we actually look at impact mitigation and risk assessment, it starts a long time before the operation actually [begins]. So it informs the way that operations are actually designed, and how infrastructure is placed and how we might utilise those assets.
And it continues all the way through the life of the operation and beyond closure. And look, that can be in excess of 50 years. So it’s quite a long time span that we need to ensure that our processes change. And data informs that as well.
Looking now at how mining is about extracting and gathering new types of material – what will be the role in achieving a circular economy where less materials are being wasted, less entering the circular economy and they’re being recycled. What will the role of mining be in achieving that circular economy?
It’s a very good question. And people might have heard about the concept of a circular economy, or circularity.
And look at some of the objectives of that are, as you mentioned before, about, say, designing out waste and pollution. It’s about keeping materials and products at their highest use for as long as possible, and also to regenerate natural systems as you go.
So if you think about that, in the current and future sense that by 2050, the global population is projected to be nearly 10 billion people. And with that rapid demographic change and the population growth, that also brings on an increasing demand for resources.
When we think about global material flows, material recovery rates, and also just chemistry – about how things are actually produced – there will be a place for mining and metals in the future, if there is this transition to a circular economy.
And if we are to have a transition to circularity, then it needs to be an inclusive engagement of all parts of the economy, [with] mining being included in that.
So the role that mining can actually have is upstream partnerships and also downstream partnerships, because as you mentioned, it’s effectively a primary producer of materials, there are a lot of people downstream that we can engage in and to improve practices there.
So mining produces a number of materials that, their inherent characteristics are around recyclability, and durability, and connectivity. And the connectivity part is quite important for low carbon materials for a low carbon future.
So that will be an area that mining will certainly have a strong presence in the future.
You mentioned before about recycling so that it is a part of a circular economy. But it’s not the only part as well.
So that’s the opportunity for where metals providers can actually play a role in working downstream with their partners about how the materials are actually used and inform those processes in the future.
At Rio Tinto this year, and in years to come as well, we plan to continue to explore ways that we can contribute to the circular economy and I hazard a guess and say that that’s probably similar for the rest of the mining industry as well.
So, you’re talking quite far in the future. You mentioned, you’re looking at the next 50 years, all of these downstream processes, how everything engages. Looking into the future, then, how can you achieve net zero emissions by 2050?
At Rio Tinto, our ambition is to achieve net zero emissions from our operations by 2050.
And last year, we announced new climate-change targets for 2030 to help us on that process. So we committed to reducing our absolute emissions by 15%, and to reduce our emissions intensity by 30% relative to our 2018 baseline. To be able to help us to do [that] we’ve committed to spend approximately $1 billion on emissions reduction initiatives in the first five years of those targets as well.
In addition to that, we’ve completed a rigorous process of assessing the decarbonisation pathways for all of our product groups around the world as well, which is then informing some of these decisions in the future.
Look, if anybody’s interested in those decarbonisation pathways, methodologies that we use, and also physical resilience to climate change, there’s a whole bunch of information on our website at Riotinto.com/sustainability.
And what about all of the other areas that are involved in the industry, such as supply chains that make trucks, machinery, office equipment, even just office working, all of that – how does that factor into this goal that you have?
That’s right. So we operate in value chains with large carbon footprints. And we are actively engaging in partnerships and exploring ways to reduce the carbon footprint and improve environmental performance at all parts of the value chain.
So for example, we’ve partnered with Nippon Steel Corporation, to look at the steel sector, and also our Elysis joint venture, which is looking at carbon-free smelting technology for aluminium.
So there’s work around technology and technological improvements that will help inform that and help us move towards the carbon reduction along the value chain.
80% of our scope three emissions comes from our customer’s hard-to-abate based processes. So hence why it’s really quite important that we do work with them, and to be able to help them reduce emissions in that regard.
And you may be familiar with the new goals that we set in 2021, around scope three emissions, and that’s looking at quite an involved partnership approach, so about low carbon technologies, and also how to reduce emissions from shipping our products as well.
I’m looking forward to seeing that goal achieved in the future and to what our future will be like under those types of principles of environmental science.