With sustainability close to the number one topic shaping the business landscape, the mining industry faces perhaps more scrutiny today than ever before. From stakeholder engagement to employee welfare and the emissions generated from using mined commodities, there is a spectrum of issues on which mining companies are judged. Not just by traditional critics such as NGOs, but increasingly by policymakers, investors and consumers themselves.
As a result, mining companies are seeking the advice of consultants that live and breathe environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues to adapt to this evolving backdrop (see the mining consultants focus in IM October 2021 for more on this).
In this regard, they don’t come much bigger than ERM, which calls itself the largest global pure play sustainability consultancy. With a remit that goes into strategic, operational and tactical challenges, the company’s services have been in serious demand of late.
Louise Pearce, ERM Global Mining Lead; Jonathan Molyneux, ERM Mining ESG Strategy Lead; Peter Rawlings, Low Carbon Economy Transition Lead; and Geraint Bowden, Regional Client Director – Mining, were happy to go into some detail about how the company is serving the industry across multiple disciplines.
According to the four, there is increasing demand for services from miners interested in energy/battery minerals (lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, platinum, palladium and rhodium (PGMs)) on the back of rising numbers of new mines coming onto the scene, “shorter supply chains to customers”, the perceived need to secure domestic supply of these minerals, and requirements of “evidence of responsibly-produced certifications from industry organisations such as the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA)”.
Such trends have been underwritten by a shift in both the requirements and considerations around the extraction of these minerals, according to Molyneux.
“In the last five to seven years, the main ESG incentives for change have come from access to capital (ie investor ESG preferences, especially in relation to catastrophic incidents),” he said.
“Over the last three years, we have seen a strong rise in expectations from downstream customers, particularly leading brands.”
Automotive original equipment manufacturers like BMW and Daimler are placing sustainability at the centre of their brands, according to ERM. Their initial focus has been on ‘net-zero’ driving/electrification – and they have made progress on this with several major electric car launches. They then shifted to examining the carbon emissions and ESG, or responsible practices, of tier-one and tier-two component manufacturers. The last step has been a full analysis of the ESG credentials of input materials right back to source, ie the mine.
“We see a shift from the historic lens of customers managing supply risk by sourcing from organisations which ‘do little/no harm’ (eg human rights compliance, catastrophic incident avoidance) to supply partners that can contribute to the ‘do net good’ or ‘create value for all stakeholders’ (ie communities, workforce, nature positive),” Pearce said.
Such a shift has resulted in more clients considering “circular thinking” in their operational strategy, as well as carrying out risk reviews and transformation projects focused on a company’s social or cultural heritage. Tied to this, these same companies have been evaluating their water use, biodiversity requirements and, of course, decarbonisation efforts.
It is the latter on which the steel raw materials companies predominantly have been looking for advice, according to ERM.
The focus has been on ‘green’ iron ore, low-carbon steel and ‘circular’ steel, according to Molyneux and Bowden, with ERM providing input on how companies in this supply chain can integrate sustainability into their strategy and operations.
On the thermal coal side, meanwhile, it is a very different type of ERM service in demand: mine retirements, closure/local/regional regeneration transitions and responsible disposals.
Delivering on decarbonisation
The mining industry decarbonisation targets have come thick and fast in the last 18-24 months, with the latest announcement from the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) seeing all 28 mining and metals members sign up to a goal of net zero Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 or sooner, in line with the ambitions of the Paris Agreement.
Many have gone further than Scope 1 (direct emissions from owned or controlled sources) and Scope 2 (indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling consumed by the reporting company) emissions, looking at including Scope 3 (all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain) targets.
These are essential goals – and ones that all interested parties are calling for – in order to deliver on the Paris Agreement, yet many miners are not yet in the position to deliver on them, according to Pearce, Molyneux, Rawlings and Bowden.
“Miners need to look at decarbonisation at a holistic level across their operations and value chain, and cannot just delegate the net zero requirements to individual assets,” Rawlings said. “The solutions needed require investment and are often at a scale well beyond individual assets/sites.”
Much of this decarbonisation effort mirrors other industries, with the use of alternative fuels for plant and equipment, accessing renewable electricity supplies, etc, they said.
Process-specific activities can present challenges and is where innovation is required.
“These hard to abate areas are where a lot of efforts are currently focused,” Rawlings said.
Tied into this discussion is the allowance and estimates made for carbon.
There has been anecdotal evidence of miners taking account of carbon in annual and technical reports – a recent standout example being OZ Minerals inclusion of a carbon price in determining the valuation of its Prominent Hill shaft expansion project in South Australia – but there is no current legislation in place.
“We are seeing a broad spectrum of price and sophistication (targeted audience, knowledge level), but it is an active board level discussion for most clients,” Bowden said on this subject. “Most clients view this as market-driven requirements as opposed to a voluntary disclosure.”
This has been driven, in part, from the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, which many miners – including all the majors – are aligning their reporting with.
Some clients are also looking into scenarios to work around carbon regimes such as the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, which proposes a carbon-based levy on imports of specific products.
Having acquired several companies in recent months focused on the low carbon economy transition – such as E4tech, Element Energy and RCG – ERM feels best placed to provide the technical expertise and experience to deliver the sustainable energy solutions miners require to decarbonise their operations.
“With these companies, combined with ERM’s expertise, it means we can support clients on the decarbonisation journeys from the initial strategy and ambition development through to implementation and delivery of their roadmaps,” Rawlings said. “We can support clients from boots to boardroom as they assess decarbonisation options and technologies; help them understand the financial, policy and practical aspects linked to deployment of solutions; and access the financing necessary to support deployment.”
There is more to this evolving backdrop than setting and meeting ambitious environmental goals, yet, in ERM’s experience, the advice provided by consultants – and requested by miners – has historically been focused on individual ESG domains.
“This has often been driven by their realisation that their (miner’s) in-house policies and standards require updating,” Pearce said.
A siloed or disaggregated approach to ESG strategy development often reduces risk, but rarely generates value for the enterprise at hand, according to Pearce.
“What we have learned is that in order for organisations to create value, they need to focus on value drivers for the corporation,” she said. “These value levers are typically influenced by an integrated suite of ESG dimensions. For example, this could be looking at carbon emissions, connected with water use and nature, connected with local socio-economic development.”
“Sustainability and ESG are about understanding the inter-relationships between our social, natural and economic environments over the longer term. It cannot be about addressing one topic at a time or responding to the loudest voices.”
This is where ERM’s ‘second-generation’ ESG advice, which is driven by data and opportunities to create value as well as manage risk, is fit for the task.
“We are also finding that, at its heart, the central issue to second-generation ESG performance delivery/improvement for our clients is not just the strategy, but a willingness of organisations to reflect on their core values, how these have driven their traditional approaches and decisions and how they will need to evolve these if they want to achieve a genuine brand and reputation for ESG and achieve impact on the value drivers they have selected,” she added.
Such thinking is proving definitive in ERM’s mining sector mergers and acquisition due diligence.
“We have multiple experiences where clients have asked us to carry out an ESG review of a target portfolio, only to find that there is too great a gap between the target’s ESG asset footprint to align them with the client’s standard – or, that the carbon, water, closure or tailings profile of the target carries a too high-risk profile,” Molyneux said.
This is presenting clients with a dilemma as they want to increase their exposure to certain minerals, but are, in some instances, finding M&A is a too high-risk route. At the same time, the lead time to find and develop their own new assets is longer than they would wish for building market share.
Such a market dynamic opens the door for juniors looking for assets early in their lifecycles, yet it places a high load on the management teams of these companies to think strategically about the ESG profile of the asset they are setting the foundations for to eventually appeal to a potential acquirer.
“This is, in itself, a dilemma because, typically, the cash scarcity at the junior stage leads management teams to focus on the immediate technical challenges, sometimes at the cost of also addressing the priority non-technical challenges,” Bowden said.
Those companies who can take a strategic view on the ESG requirements of the future – rooted in a deep understanding of how to deliver change on the ground – will be best placed in such a market, and ERM says it is on hand to provide the tools to develop such an appropriate approach.
(Lead photo credit: @Talaat Bakri, ERM)