Sustainable mining: getting serious about net zero and decarbonisation

Mining’s climate record isn’t great. Since 1990, the industry’s carbon and methane gas emissions have more than doubled, according to the federal government’s new National Greenhouse Accounts system.

But the problem of sustainable mining and net zero targets has itself become an opportunity.

Minerals Council of Australia CEO Tania Constable says the mining industry needs thousands of new workers to cash in on our $4 trillion worth of investment in the critical minerals necessary for climate-change-combatting technologies.

This investment in regional and remote infrastructure must be made anyway, and green alternatives are not only cost-effective – they’re profit beneficial.

“The Compelling Case for Decarbonisation: Mining a Low Emissions Economy” report states the industry will profit from the once-in-a-generation shift in global demand. Lithium, graphite, cobalt, and nickel are suddenly vital commodities.

“By helping meet surging demand for these resources, the mining sector can help Australia and the world achieve net zero emissions by 2050 while continuing to create jobs and opportunities around the country,” says Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) executive director Rob Wilson.

“By decarbonising their operations, Australian mining producers can align financial profitability with sustainability to position themselves as market leaders.”

Australia’s resource and energy export revenues are expected to be $405 billion in 2021-22, growing to $419 billion in 2022-23. And the latest mineral exploration statistics support this. Exploration expenditure across Australia increased by 23%, up by $198 million to $1.05 billion. Western Australia alone saw a record expenditure of $673 million.

Iron ore attracted the most significant investment. But nickel and cobalt also recorded a 24% lift. It’s a boom that could help miners transition their own technology.

“Mining businesses can benefit from the operational efficiencies and low-cost energy solutions underpinning the transition to net zero emissions,” the Compelling Case report argues.

The report includes a “how-to” guide for miners to map out a path to sustainable mining and net zero emissions. This includes measuring them, what technologies are available, and which suits what conditions.

Emerging technologies will help with sustainable mining

“By sharing information on what is already being achieved, and examining the current and emerging technologies required from mining to mineral processing, we can build a common understanding of the outstanding issues and start working together to create a momentum to find the necessary solutions,” says Minerals Research Institute of Western Australia (MRIWA) CEO Nicole Roocke.

Minerals research institute ceo nicole roocke: emerging technology will help sustainable mining
CEO Nicole Roocke.

In one case study, the report shows the economic returns offered by mining plant and equipment electrification.

Mining relies heavily on energy-dense fuels such as diesel and gas. And the distance from grid-supplied electricity has made it unattractive as an alternative. But the dramatic fall in costs associated with solar, wind and battery systems, along with manufacturers offering electric-motored alternatives, now enables emission-intensive fuels to be put aside. And where electricity won’t work – hydrogen-based technologies often can.

“If we are to capture the benefits and make meaningful contributions to emissions reduction, it is past time to turn planning into action – what we need is substantial investment, innovative market development and accelerated emissions ambitions,” the report concludes.

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