Sustainable business and the business of sustainability

Prof Anna Littleboy, Mining3 Technology Leader – Sustainability through Technology  writes: “Adaptability is a core characteristic of the human race. And because we are adaptable, we have continuously adapted within the minerals industry—changing practices, adopting technologies and striving for operational excellence in many, many dimensions. Mining3’s core business is to provide the mining industry with the research and knowledge it needs to adapt in a fast-paced and competitive global marketplace.  For this reason, Mining3 has turned its attention to the topic of ‘sustainability’ which exerts a significant influence on 21st-century public policy.

“Sustainability is a tricky term and you could be forgiven for asking if we mean sustainability of the mining operation or sustainable development as initially defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development’s report: Our Common Future in 1987. The answer is both.  In the 21st century, a sustainable business is one that demonstrably contributes to sustainable development.” This point was very ably made by Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock investment in a letter to companies at the end of 2017 in which he stated:

“….Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.”

Any statement from the investment community is based on serious consideration of trends in the market place.  These trends are emerging in the form of changing expectations in the minerals industry. “They are slower burning,” Littleboy continues, “than fluctuations in the markets but are, nevertheless, inexorable and transformational. Lead indicators of these changing expectations include:

  • Extended producer responsibility whereby a consumer is looking for assurance that their purchase has not contributed to negative outcomes anywhere along the value chain. The recent creation of Elisys, which brings together Apple and Rio Tinto to deliver a new technology that produces zero-emission aluminium is a tangible example of this effect
  • The societal aspirations espoused by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the public and private discourses about mining as an agent for positive transitions in developing economies
  • Changes in assurance requirements and approvals processes to address up front the risks from longer-term life-of-mine costs such as closure and rehabilitation
  • The proliferation of standards, certification schemes, sustainability frameworks, and corporate social responsibility policies
  • Generational transitions as the millennial generations enter the workplace driving a more fluid and connected workforce conditioned to think about integrated systems
  • The uptake of social media and the unprecedented access to information now available to individuals.

“These changing expectations are not just issues that will affect the industry in the future. They are constraining the industry now. Recent work by The University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute (SMI) indicates that non-price sensitive issues such as legal challenges based on social and environmental concerns contribute significantly (more than 60%) to delays that are preventing the development of known, undeveloped copper deposits. This represents in the order of A$65 billion in inaccessible mineral value because of long-term sustainability concerns.

“Mining3 is increasingly developing its strategy for supporting the industry to address these concerns. This is not to say that the industry does not consider sustainability at present. Obviously, it does—in numerous innovations designed to reduce water and energy use, manage wastes, contribute to the local community and reduce emissions. Mining3, SMI, and others have provided research to support these goals for more than two decades. However, these innovations do not fundamentally challenge the core of the mining process—to deliver shareholder value by maximising profitability.

“Mining3’s Sustainability through Technology program assumes the changing expectations outlined above are a clear and present challenge to mining business-as-usual. It will explore sustainability as a disruptor of the mining process. Sticking to Mining3’s strengths, the focus will be on the development of technologies that can enable the industry to adapt. However, in order to ensure access to leading skills and capabilities in all the dimensions of sustainability, Mining3 is working with SMI to build projects in three areas of potentially transformational change. These areas have been identified through consultation between researchers and industry.

1. Developing next-generation mine planning tools that can appropriately value and incorporate sustainability measures into the heart of the operation. The aim is to design-out some of the foreseeable environmental and social challenges and design-in positive social and environmental outcomes. This will focus on generating realistic life-of-mine costs and rethinking the discount factors for longer-term costs where a net present value (NPV) approach is taken.

2. The delivery of a ‘zero carbon’ mine. Although there is a strong track-record in Australia driving energy-efficient comminution, the concept of de-carbonising the mine requires additional innovation. The JKMRC Mine Energy Transformation and Integration Program advocate an approach that combines efficiency measures with new-energy generation technologies, energy benchmarking and auditing, and operational strategies for demand management. The aim would be to apply these methods together with Mining3’s electric mine research and new supply strategies to deliver net-zero emissions.

3. The concept of a ‘no-tailings’ mine. Tailings are the bane of a mature mine. Tailings storage facilities effectively become new landforms on a kilometre scale. With them come risks related to liquefaction, acid rock drainage, and often un-quantified liabilities around rehabilitation and closure. They drive negative public discourse and community concerns, are the most significant visible sign of a mine’s existence (past or present), and dominate uncertainty in closure costs. The concept of a no-tailings mine would drive technology and processes to ensure wastes and tailings are minimised at source. This might be through the technologies enabling in-place mining (ore sorting, in-mine processing, or in-situ recovery), concurrent and progressive treatment of tailings through the use of biotechnology, or a final-placement strategy designed from the outset.

“Underpinning these themes is the nexus that exists between water-energy-society and the business ecosystem that services the industry. These are also areas for consideration within Mining3’s Sustainability through Technology program.”

She concludes that “Mining3 is evolving in scope to address the longer-term issues that will challenge the sustainability of the industry. Ironically, these relate to sustainable development and its (real or perceived) performance against sustainability outcomes. In partnering with SMI, Mining3 is accessing and sharing complementary skills and technical mining expertise to develop a new portfolio of projects for its members.”