One of the topics that continually appears in most 'top mining trends' lists is that of the industry's role in transitioning to a low-carbon economy. What is a low-carbon economy and what are the implications for the mining industry?

Wikipedia defines a 'low-carbon economy' as one based on power sources that are derived from low carbon raw materials. Using more of these reduces greenhouse gas emissions, notably carbon dioxide. It's an interesting thing but once upon a time, way back before living, breathing creatures started walking around, nothing much used oxygen. In fact, oxygen is toxic to vegetation, which prefers carbon dioxide. They absorb it and release oxygen back into the atmosphere as a by-product. Breathing creatures do the opposite – they breath in oxygen, produce carbon dioxide and, in an ideal world, everything hums along in perfect balance. That is, until 

a) the world started losing major portions of its carbon dioxide utilising, oxygen emitting vegetation courtesy of humans

whilst at the same time

b) humans started contributing way more carbon dioxide to the environment than it was designed to cope with

It's interesting to speculate where we'd be right now with respect to global warming had we not destroyed around one half of the world's rainforests during our relatively short occupation of this planet! Much of this destruction has occurred in the last century right alongside rapid increases in our voracious appetite for carbon dioxide emitting technologies, notably electricity, heating, and transport. Unfortunately, as the environment is now telling us in no uncertain terms, these two habits are mutually destructive. Both have to be drastically reduced, and rapidly.

Decarbonising CO2 Emitting Energy Systems

Low-carbon economies are primarily about decarbonising fossil fuel guzzling energy systems. Currently the big 3 – electricity, heating, and transport – are the biggest carbon users and carbon dioxide emitters. In 2014 around ¾ of the world's electricity was generated by burning fossil fuels. Coal accounted for nearly half this with natural gas supplying around a fifth, and oil 4%. However, this figure was down on 2011 figures by around 8%, which is moving in the right direction and it has come down even further since those figures were released.
A number of countries are now in fact operating almost completely on electricity generated by renewable sources. Iceland tops the list – the country now produces almost 100% of its electricity and heating from hydroelectric and geothermal sources. As an added bonus, they've found that some of their new age geothermal plants are a major tourist attraction! Other countries making significant gains in renewable energy sources, and thus moving closer to their low-carbon goals are

  • Sweden (solar / wind),
  • Costa Rica (hydroelectric / geothermal / solar / wind),
  • UK (wind)
  • Nicaragua (wind / solar / geothermal),
  • Germany (solar),
  • Uruguay (wind / solar),
  • Denmark (wind),
  • Morocco (solar),
  • USA (solar / wind)

In the UK, power generated from renewable energy sources has now surpassed that generated by fossil fuels. The Scottish winds for example can produce enough power to supply every single Scottish household, with some left over! Likewise, Ireland has been able to power up to 1.26 million Irish homes on windy days.

Petrol and diesel burning motor vehicles are also huge carbon consuming, carbon dioxide emitting creatures. The average motorcar in good mechanical condition, doing the average number of kilometres per year, and consuming the average number of litres per kilometre, emits around 4½ metric tons of CO2 a year. Indeed, on a global scale our horseless carriages contribute about one-fifth of total CO2 emissions. In some parts of the world the figure is higher – transport in Europe for example contributes around 30% of the EU's CO2 emissions. Fortunately, the push towards electric and hydrogen vehicles will start to bring these figures down over the next few decades. Most of the big car manufacturers are aiming to be producing 100% electric or renewable energy run vehicles by the middle of the century or earlier.

Likewise, mining can significantly contribute to a low-carbon economy by moving towards the utilisation of low carbon technologies. This includes:

  • Ensuring more efficient current use of fossil fuel technologies until they can be phased out
  • Using greener renewable energy sources for powering mining infrastructure – solar, wind, hydro etc
  • Implementing cleaner, greener processing technologies
  • Switching over to greener equipment as soon as practicable ie electric and hydrogen powered vehicle fleets, and
  • Focussing on recycling valuable finite commodities like water

Miners that can successfully do all these things will be able to sell low-carbon footprint leaving products and that is going to be very significant moving forward. Some of the major players in the technology sphere are already closely scrutinising the sources of their raw materials – Apple for example is now big on ensuring theirs come from ethical, sustainable mining operations.

Climate Smart Mining

Unfortunately, mining can't do much about majority of the 200,000 plus acres of rain forest that gets destroyed on a daily basis (that equates to a staggering 150 acres EVERY SINGLE MINUTE). However, it has to be noted that globally mining contributes to around 7% of forest loss either directly through mine site clearing (minor) or indirectly through pollution, associated infrastructure (major), and increased human activity (major). Within individual countries, this loss can be significant. In Suriname for example, a small country located amidst lush tropical rainforests on South America's northeast coast, 73% of its deforestation has been caused by mining activities. Granted, the majority of these mines are small-scale and artisanal mines but mining is mining! 

Furthermore, according to the WorldBank there are currently around 1500 large mines operating in tropical forests. Another 1800 are either non-operational or being developed. Over half these mines are in low and low to middle income countries where economic considerations frequently override environmental concerns! Yet several African countries that fall into this category have recognised the need for policies that look after both and have established ways and means to achieve favourable outcomes for all stakeholders, including the forests in which these mining activities are located.

Obviously, in an ideal world there wouldn't be any mines in these significantly sensitive environments at all! However, many of the minerals that will be needed in increasing quantities to help the world move towards low-carbon economies are found in forests. Three that immediately spring to mind are bauxite, nickel, and titanium. These minerals are integral components in mobile phones and computers as well as many low-carbon technologies. Unfortunately, the ores from which they're extracted are often located in forested areas. The Amazon Rainforests for example contain significant reserves of bauxite and nickel as well as copper, gold, iron ore, manganese, and tin, all of which are important commodities in a low-carbon economy.

This is in fact one of the major dichotomies facing the industry, and the world. Most green technologies are going to require ever increasing quantities of minerals. The wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles with their batteries, and other clean technologies that will inevitably be a large part of our future, are going to need significant quantities of minerals. The forecast is that we're going to need more minerals over the next 3 decades than we've mined over the past century! That prognosis, unless it's accompanied by adequate policies that effectively safeguard the natural environment, could mean we're simply robbing Peter to pay Paul. We'd be supplying the raw materials for much needed green technologies but at the expense of the world's natural carbon sink – its vegetation!