Decarbonization is the practice of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels by replacing fossil fuels with other forms of renewable energy that make mining greener. Replacing fossil fuels will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The reduction in use of diesel, gas, coal becomes the essence of the new shift to decarbonization in mining and the long term global trend in the development of the green economy in mining. In this article we focus on decarbonization in mining delving into areas of concern, drivers, commodity markets, what it takes to decarbonize, lessons learnt from different parts of the world and solutions towards decarbonization. 

What areas require decarbonization in mining? 

The areas that require decarbonization in mining vary across the different elements that contribute to the success of a mining operations from pit to port. Decarbonization in mining is required in the following areas:

  • Hauling 
  • Processing 
  • Diesel trucks 
  • Supply chain
  • Mining process 
  • Electricity supply 
  • Transportation of commodities 

What are the drivers for decarbonization in mining?

There are different drivers for decarbonization in mining. These drivers do not exist in isolation, most of them actually work hand in hand which then makes decarbonization in mining a task which is multifaceted. These are some of the drivers:  

  • Costs – energy is a substantial and growing proportion of a miner’s cost, representing around one-third of mining companies’ total cost base. Most miners anticipate the introduction of a price on carbon, which will increase the cost of diesel energy. 
  • Consumers – the COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmingly changed the sustainability mindset of consumers with global markets become more and more consumer-driven, social expectations rise, and participants at all stages of the value chain will have greater expectations plan on them to reduce carbon emissions. 
  • Capital providers – the pressure is increasingly being applied by capital providers to meet decarbonization targets to be able to access financing for mining projects. 

Which commodity markets contribute to the mining sector’s total emissions? 

Different commodity markets have varying contributions to the mining sector’s total emissions, in a combination of scale and carbon intensity of operations. According to MineSpans these are the commodities that contribute to the mining sector’s total emissions from least to most:

  • Uranium
  • Cobalt 
  • Lithium 
  • Zinc 
  • Potash
  • Nickel
  • Gold 
  • Iron ore 
  • Copper 
  • Metallurgical coal

What are the challenges to achieving a zero-carbon mine?

There are many challenges and limitations to achieving a zero-carbon mine in the journey to decarbonization in mining.

Are environmental regulations, health and safety concerns or potential profit loss a concern right now?

Some of these decarbonisation challenges faced in mining include: 

  • A major limitation of renewable energy its intermittency – there is inevitable variability in generation which must be tackled. 
  • Integration and not segregation of renewable and conventional power – there is need for commercial integration between conventional and renewable energy sources.
  • Limitations of battery-electric mobile equipment – requirement of frequent charging and need to revisit the way machines are used.  
  • Embedding change in organizations – mining companies often see decarbonisation as a cost and something that is imposed on them rather than a cohesive part of their overarching business strategy. 
  • Needs to become part of people’s daily work – this leads to decarbonisation sitting at the corporate level because mining houses are headquartered in tough carbon dioxide reduction countries BUT many of their mines are in countries that don’t have similar government policies or legislation. 
  • Difficulty in calculating the benefits – costing is difficult and the challenge is in properly calculating the capital required to make the switch to low-carbon equipment and energy sourcing at individual mine sites. 

Is decarbonization in mining achievable?

Mining has a vital role to play in providing the materials for a zero net carbon emissions world but to achieve this the industry must expand and decarbonize at the same time. Decarbonization is essential to the future of our planet. The increase in energy efficiency will have many positive effects in the short and long term, including improving air quality and reducing temperatures worldwide. The importance of shifting to a decarbonized mining sector will bring climate reforms and progress towards net zero emissions, engagement and commitment. There is no way around the issue of decarbonization. The transition to net zero carbon economy will continue to affect economies and societies around the world, in a positive way. There is a big range of CO2 equivalent emissions per tonne of coal mined, mainly driven by the presence of fugitive methane from deep coal layers. Capturing and draining this gas will be essential in the path towards zero emissions. 

Vehicles will not only significantly contribute towards carbon emission reductions but will also enable mine operations to become more environment friendly and sustainable. Despite a daunting timeline, zero-carbon mines are within reach if the right solutions are implemented. now is the right time for miners to take action and accelerate their efforts to decarbonize, using this as a differentiator toward customers given this growing ambition for decarbonization. As stakeholders pressure mining companies to reduce emissions, operations must monitor their environmental impact and ultimately move toward zero-carbon mining. We believe that decarbonization is possible, but only if all stakeholders along this end-to-end value chain are willing to rally together to take advantage of the opportunities in this landscape and address these challenges through cross-sectoral collaboration. 

Final word – The need for digital transformation. 

Finally, the key lies in making data around carbon dioxide emissions available in real time. There has to be departure from just reporting, yes it is good but always happens after something has gone wrong. Real time emissions data that is understandable and actionable will be key in decision making around decarbonisation in mining and only digital tools will enable that. 

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