Decarbonising mining and the race to sustainability

Net zero ambitions in the mining industry face a major challenge in carbon reduction as they seek to improve or re-engineer old-economy assets. Nick Gibson explores the scale of the challenge and what are mining companies are doing to reduce their environmental impact.

“In the mining industry the major polluters are the energy and transportation intensive mining sectors and projects,” says Peter Hjorth, ceo of mining company Bluelake Mineral. “The most energy intensive sector in the mining industry is iron and steel which constitutes some 7 per cent of global greenhouse emissions.”

Net zero industry leaders at New York Climate Week recent endorsed plans to decarbonise some of world’s hardest-to-abate, carbon-intensive industries in this decade.

The new Sector Transition Strategies for production of near-zero emissions materials including aluminium, ammonia and steel have won support from 60 major companies and are based on deployment of available net zero industry technologies by 2030.

The STS reports detail specific requirements with real-economy milestones for clean energy, new or retrofitted industrial plants and policy reform to meet sectoral carbon budgets aligned to the Paris Agreement goal to curb global heating to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 2050.

“In transportation intensive sectors carbon reduction is project specific and related to scale and grade,” says Peter Hjorth. “Large scale and low grade projects tend to require more transportation and are therefore more problematic from a greenhouse emissions perspective.

“Another, possible polluting effect is emission of water from mines which have not been properly cleaned before emission. Again this project specific, in some projects there are poisonous elements that have to be rinsed out. In other cases the tailings are relatively clean.

“As many other mining companies we are working with a so called ‘Life Cycle Assessment’ in which we try to assess from “cradle-to-gate” (production until concentrate) the amount of CO2 equivalents in kg per functional unit which in the case of our planned nickel mine (Rönnbäcken) is measured in Ni equivalents in kg.

“This is a long term effort which never stops, but our early preliminary conclusions are that we can reduce CO2 with some 25 per cent by electrifying the transport fleet and heavy machinery on mining site.

“In order to lower CO2 footprint further we are depending on green production of input factors, especially we will have to source energy from producers of renewable ‘green energy’ and reagents like collectors and dispersants in the floatation process from producers of ‘green chemicals’.

The mining industry has already taken major steps towards meeting net zero targets, Hjorth says. The industry as a whole is heavily involved in carbon reduction. In Sweden for instance there are two of the most advanced fossil free steel manufacturing projects in the world in progress: Hybrit and H2 Greensteel.

“However, these projects are not unproblematic,” says Peter Hjorth. “They will consume enormous amounts of energy and will each become among the consumers of energy in all of the Nordic countries. Some critics say that as long as the energy they consume is not 100 per cent green – maybe partly generated via fossil fuels, coal etc, then these projects will not be so green in fact quite the contrary.”

The maze of regulation and compliance

All major industries now face increasing regulation and legislation with a need to capture, report and audit environmental impact and the mining industry is no exception.

“Standards, regulation and compliance issues vary between geographical regions,” Hjorth explains. “The EU and the Nordic countries are probably among the toughest environmental regulations for mining in the world. It does not only have to do with various emissions of CO2, elements in water etc, but also co-existence with other stakeholders including local Sami reindeer herding; Non-interference with red listed plants and animal species; EU water directive – no negative impact on water bodies allowed.

“The current regulations are probably strict enough, but they are often too much focused on the local environment and too little focused on the global climate impact. For instance, should a mine be stopped because it could possibly impact one single bird living in the surroundings, or should it be allowed because the metal that can be mines locally at an environmentally friendly manner and which is a critical input metal for the green transition (EV battery manufacturing or renewable energy)?”

Industry steps toward carbon reduction

In the steel sector, early progress in net zero industry breakthrough projects and increased supply of near-zero primary steel are essential to remain within a Paris-aligned sectoral carbon budget. MPP estimates that commercialisation of net-zero technologies would cost up to $200 billion per year, implying significantly higher demand for hydrogen, clean electricity and natural gas, but a stark decline in coal consumption.

Aluminium plays an enabling role in net zero industry and decarbonising the world economy. MPP’s STS strategy for primary aluminium would mobilise clean power, improved material efficiency and recycling at a cost of up to $1 trillion to reduce carbon emissions by 95 per cent. In a business-as-usual scenario, the sector will emit a cumulative 37 gigatons of carbon by 2050, an overshoot of more than double the Paris-aligned carbon budget of 15 gigatons.

Demand for ammonia could increase six-fold by 2050 driven by new markets for green ammonia as a marine fuel and for power generation. The shipping sector has the potential to make or break demand for near-zero emissions ammonia. Coordination by policymakers to adopt, certify and expand ammonia’s new application as a marine fuel will be critical to this transition to net zero industry.

While many believe action on climate change should be driven from the top others believe industry and the market is in a stronger position to drive change.

 “The best drivers of change are the market forces, not political decisions,” says Peter Hjorth.  “Most important role for policy makers is to facilitate positive market trends and market drivers, not to create more complicated regulations and red tape.”

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