Earth Day: The long and winding road to net zero

“We need mining, we need it to live in the way we do and to transition to the renewable economy.” 

That is the world according to ABx Group (ASX:ABX) Managing Director and CEO Dr Mark Cooksey and many others in the resources sector globally. 

Among the collective consciousness there is concern in some segments of the community about the environmental effects mining for natural resources has on Mother Earth.

There is often a disregard or even contempt towards the need for the very resources being mined — and just how vital and valuable they are to not just everyday life but to a green and sustainable future of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

As mining executives explain to this news service, achieving global green energy goals is not possible without mining a vast array of materials and metals, and other minerals such as those used in agriculture.

In 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published its ‘Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector’, which outlines an achievable pathway for the energy sector to reach net zero emissions.

On this day – 22 April in 1970 – more than half a century before the IEA roadmap was released, Earth Day was born. Since then more than 1 billion people have been mobilised annually to help protect the planet.

The first Earth Day mobilised millions of Americans from all walks of life to birth the modern environmental movement. Since then, the day has evolved into the largest civic event on Earth, activating billions across 192 countries to safeguard the planet and fight for a brighter future.

As Earth Day has evolved so too has the resources sector. Green energy and decarbonisation are emerging to prominence now but to put it into perspective when the inaugural Earth Day took place 54 years ago, the Apollo 13 space mission was launched and Sir Paul McCartney left the Beatles. 

Hello, goodbye

More than half a century later, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Deputy Director of Mineral Resources Louise Fisher says there are a few tangible differences between 1970 and that of 2024. 

“There is obviously a growing focus on decarbonisation. Most companies are laying out or have stated their plans to reduce scope one, two, and three emissions,” she tells Mining.com.au.

The resources sector continues to rise in importance in terms of contributing to a sustainable future and that of the economy.

Mining now accounts for 75% of Australia’s exports, employs about 1.2 million people, and contributes more than $40 billion per year to government coffers, as reported by the Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. 

Globally, Australia holds some of the highest environmental standards within the sector. According to the IEA, Australia holds nine standards that enforce sustainable and responsible practices, while Canada and the European Union ranked second with eight standards. 

These practices include the South Australia Mining Act 1971, Queensland Mineral Resources Act 1989, Victoria Mineral Resources Sustainable Development Act 1990, New South Wales Mining Act 1992, Tasmania Mineral Resources Development Act 1995, the EPBC Act, the Northern Territory Mining Management Act, Biodiversity Offsets Scheme, and the Western Australia Statutory Guidelines for Mine Closure Plans. 

Ultimately, it is the company’s responsibility to ensure they adhere to local and federal laws but also incorporate robust ESG policies in order to fulfil their obligations.

ABx’s Cooksey says that when implementing responsible practices, a lot of planning and thinking is necessary. 

“Looking at a situation, we analyse to see if we can do that commercially, consciously, based on a reasonable projection. Because in certain circumstances, you think you may not be able to achieve that. You have to ask some serious questions, such as can we mine it safely and environmentally friendly,” he says. 

Across the universe 

A United Nations report cites that cities consume about 78% of the world’s energy and account for more than 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions.  In terms of industries, however, mining accounts for between 4-7% of the worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, as GlobalData reports. 

According to the Minerals Council of Australia, in order to continue building renewable energy technologies required to meet the global emissions targets, there needs to be more critical minerals extracted from the Earth. 

As such, there needs to be more lithium for batteries, copper for solar panels and transmission lines, and more cobalt for electric vehicles as well, to name a few.

Speaking to Mining.com.au, Minerals Council of Australia CEO Tania Constable says that it is not widely understood just how committed the mining industry is to ensuring environmental responsibilities are met. 

“We’re making sure that we’re prepared as much as possible for the transition that will occur,” she says, adding that Australian mine sites are increasingly being powered by renewable energy. 

“Not only are we providing input into the different technologies, but we are adopting those technologies and renewables at our own mine sites. For example, Rio Tinto (ASX:RIO) is building a 34 megawatt solar farm in the Pilbara, with around 100,000 solar photovoltaic panels being used to generate electricity for the newest iron ore mine that is there. And what that will do is reduce our overall emissions across industries.”

Similarly to Rio Tinto, Fortescue (ASX:FMG) is another environmentally focused company that previously announced it had brought forward its carbon neutrality target from 2040 to 2030. 

Through the company’s wholly owned subsidiary Fortescue Future Industries, Fortescue is focused on becoming a key enabler of this carbon neutrality target via the development of green electricity, green hydrogen, and green ammonia projects in Australia. 

The company identified solutions to eliminate 90% of CO2 equivalent terrestrial emissions associated with Australia’s iron operations and have committed US$6.2 billion to achieve this plan. 

“We are trialling and demonstrating green hydrogen technologies in global-scale commercial environments, while also rapidly evolving into a green hydrogen and electricity producer of similar scale,” Fortescue Chairman Andrew Forrest says. 

Speaking to Mining.com.au, Agrimin (ASX:AMN) CEO and Managing Director Debbie Morrow says many other companies are starting to invest in the right technologies needed in order to achieve better outcomes for the sector. 

“If you look at the investment in technology, such as underground mining and how we can have electrification of those fleets, there has been so much work done in that space,” she explains. 

“If you look at the investment in technology, such as underground mining and how we can have electrification of those fleets, there has been so much work done in that space”

“It’s amazing, because if you look at the diesel consumption that is normal on mine sites and compare it to renewable electrification, it is a massive benefit for everyone.” 

According to the Coalition for Energy Efficient Comminution (CEEC) International, diesel in mobile equipment accounted for 46% final energy consumption of an average mine site during 2021. 

However, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) reports that this percentage contribution has dropped to 41% and has been largely replaced by natural gas and grid electricity, which accounts for 33% and 22% of the mining sector’s energy. 

Diesel fuel produces several harmful emissions and is considered to be a major source of harmful pollutants. 

As the execs who spoke to Mining.com.au all agree, the mining industry is helping decrease the amount of emissions generated. And just like the ‘Beatlemania’ phenomenon or the launch of Apollo 13, it’s perhaps not being realised how significant it would be until it happened. 

Mother Nature’s son

Agrimin’s Debbie Morrow says while battery metals and other minerals and commodities such as rare earths are integral to decarbonisation there is a need for other minerals, including sulphate of potash (SOP). 

SOP is commonly used in agriculture as it provides plants with resistance to weather and diseases, alongside promoting the plants development and colour of flowers. 

“There is no question of not, we need that, and 50% to 60% of current SOP is produced through a chemically manufactured way — which is very energy intensive,” Morrow says. 

Mannheim SOP produces ‘significantly’ more CO2 and hydrochloric acid by-products. The Mannheim process is an industrial method used to produce potassium sulphate from potassium chloride and sulfuric acid. The Mannheim furnace also yields hydrochloric acid as a by-product.

In contrast, Agrimin’s Mackay Potash Project in Western Australia, extracts SOP rich brine from shallow infiltration trenches across the lake surface. As a result, the project has strong environmental, social, and governance (ESG) credentials, aligning with global sustainability goals. 

“We are so blessed to have this natural resource and because of the climatic conditions in Western Australia we can use an evaporation process, which is a very environmentally sound process,” Morrow tells this news service.

“There is no chemical processing. At a macro level, we are displacing a highly energy-intensive process, which is exciting.”

The MCA’s Constable says given Australia is well-endowed with a vast array of mineral resources it has always been environmentally conscious and a leader in best-world practices when it comes to sustainability in mining.

She says Australia is considered to have one of the most comprehensive environmental approval processes, as evidenced by Australia holding nine standards that enforce sustainable and responsible practices.

As previously reported, the MCA had called for changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act — highlighting that there needs to be a right balance. 

“The legislation is about looking at nationally, environmentally significant areas, not impacting highly endangered species, and then acting appropriately in the management of these environmental issues,” Constable says. 

The long and winding road

As the years go on and technology evolves, ASX-listed companies and industry executives are beginning to develop and evolve alongside the sector. 

CSIRO’s Louise Fisher says there is a shift in how the industry is developing and designing mining processes, dealing with mine waste products, and the challenges of tailings.

“Overall, there is a system-wide approach to rethinking how we go about the process of mining, which is really interesting to watch,” Fisher adds.

The CSIRO has five research programs and the key program surrounding the mining sector is its Sustainable Mining Technologies initiative — which is the largest mining research concentration in Australia. The program is made up of 70 specialists in mining science and technology, who address challenges within the resources sector.

“The program is increasingly shifting focus towards metalliferous mining and how the mining process might evolve, and doing so primarily with the idea of developing technologies that support the transition,” Fisher says. 

“Whether that is thinking about increasing extraction efficiency, optimising use of both resources energy and water within mining operations, thinking about ways to reduce the environmental impacts and risks of mining activities.”

The Minerals Council of Australia is also focused on rehabilitating land across a range of sites. It’s an aspect of mining that seldom gets addressed unless a company has been found to do the wrong thing.

This is something the team at ABx take very seriously, with its CEO Mark Cooksey outlining that the number one rule is – “To leave the land better than you found it.”

The MCA’s Constable agrees but notes that the resources sector doesn’t extend across as much land as one would expect.

“In terms of land use, and it’s a statistic that is not well known, is that the mining industry uses less than 1% of land use in Australia. So if you are looking at disturbances across Australia, less than 1% can be attributed to mining,” Constable says. 

Here comes the sun

Companies such as Sovereign Metals (ASX:SVM) are adopting conservation programs in line with developing its Kaisya Rutile-Graphite Project in Malawi. On 15 April 2024, the company initiated a Conservation Farming Program, which aims to improve the livelihoods of local communities through creating smallholder farmers. 

The program yields visibly higher crop growth, in which yields are conservatively estimated at 3.2 tonnes per hectare, tripling average conventional crop yields. Sovereign reports this is despite Malawi’s crop yields expecting to be 22.5% lower than average this year, due to the El Niño weather phenomenon. 

The influence of El Niño is primarily felt in eastern Australia and is the result of warmer-than-usual temperatures and reduced rainfall. 

Climate change now poses as the new number one risk towards mining companies, according to KPMG’s Australian Mining Risk Forecast. For the first time, climate change has emerged as the top-ranked risk confronting the mining sector, which KPMG says is signalling a growing awareness among companies and executives of the extent and magnitude of its potential impact on future operations. 

Alongside climate change itself, numerous other related risks also feature. These highlight the impact of the 2050 net zero target and accompanying changes to the regulatory landscape as well as more stringent financial disclosure requirements

The risk of climate change coupled with the growing concern mining has on the environment, it is necessary to enunciate the importance mining has on the Earth, environmentally, socially, culturally, and economically. 

In a highly anticipated Report in 2021, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that a certain amount of global warming is locked in and is irreversible. They reported that from 2011–2020, the global temperature had already reached 1.1 degrees Celsius above 1850-1900 levels.

It is also predicted that within the decade, global temperatures are over 50% likely to rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial levels, the so-called “tipping point” of climate change. This degree of warming is predicted to increase the frequency of wildfires by a magnitude of 8.6, kill 70-90% of coral reefs, and raise our sea levels globally by .3 metres.

Additionally, the KPMG analysis highlights that Australia has an abundance of the critical minerals needed to help reduce the carbon footprint, with lithium specifically which presents a potential opportunity for the nation. 

Such minerals are crucial towards the global renewable energy transition, which will have a positive impact on the entire environment. 

For example, before installing a solar panel onto a roof or before an electric vehicle can be driven on the streets, mining companies are needed to extract these minerals out of the ground.

As Earth Day unfolds across the planet an emerging consensus is for the mining industry to continue banding together and staying on song with its commitment to helping create a sustainable future.

“it’s getting better all the time, can’t get no worse”

As John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote in 1967, “it’s getting better all the time, can’t get no worse”.

The Earth Day organisation works with partners to build a historic movement that is needed to meet the climate crisis alongside taking hold of the opportunities surrounding the net zero future. 

Earthday.org says the world has been aware of climate change at least since the IPCC formed in 1988. Scientists and the public rallied around environmental policy, but the organisation says many global governments had a different idea. They were going to ignore it.

Countries contributing the most to global emissions have the best chance of curbing climate change, but leaders are doing little to address it. Although it has been seven years since the Paris Agreement entered into force, Earthday.org notes none of the world’s major economies are on track to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

To outline steps to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build resilience to climate change, parties submit Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) every five years. 

While July 31 was the deadline to submit updated NDCs, many countries didn’t actually increase their climate pledges, and others missed the deadline entirely.

Climate literacy is among the climate goals that have missed the mark. Climate literacy (as supported by an integrated K-12 curricula) is needed to prepare youth with an understanding of the climate crisis and skills to create solutions, yet not one country has thoroughly addressed it within its NDC.

Write to Aaliyah Rogan at Mining.com.au

Images: CSIRO
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Written By Aaliyah Rogan
Relocated from the East Coast in New Zealand to Queensland Australia, Aaliyah is a fervent journalist who has a passion for storytelling. When Aaliyah isn’t writing stories, she is either spending time with friends and family or down at the beach.