The mining industry contributes 2 to 3 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions and has a huge role to play in decarbonisation and carbon dioxide emission reduction. Carbon dioxide emissions in the mining sector come from:

  • Diesel. 
  • Electricity generation. 
  • Supply chain and transport.

In this article we learn more about how to create a zero-carbon mine through various lenses which highlight the process, the requirements, conversations in Australia and the global landscape. 

What is a zero-carbon mine?

In simple terms, a zero-carbon mine is one that does not have any carbon dioxide emissions from supply chain, operation and transportation from pit to port. The concept involves no carbon at every stage of the mining cycle thus there is no carbon footprint of any of the mine related activities.

To realise a zero-carbon mine there are different pathways and routes which are achievable in the next 3 decades. These pathways include:

  • Short term decarbonization actions – using cost-positive alternatives with technology available today.
  • Mid- and long-term opportunities – need technological development which is not yet commercially available.

Sustainable mining to achieve the zero-carbon mine in the long term will involve a move to fully electric mobile equipment fleet, use of the green hydrogen pathway with capacity derived from wind or solar and using synthetic fuel from green hydrogen and carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) with current equipment. 

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

How do you create a zero-carbon mine? 

Creating a zero-carbon mine offers ambitious stakeholders in the mining sector an opportunity to pave the way and be at the forefront towards zero-carbon mining. The decarbonization options to meet a zero-carbon mine would require the following:

  • Improvement in operational efficiency. 
  • Use of sustainable fuels. 
  • Sustainability drivetrains. 
  • Green electricity.
  • Decarbonize mine transport. 
  • Use of hydropower and cable trollies.
  • Mined rock that will absorb carbon dioxide.
  • Sustainable sourcing.

Who is leading the net-zero by 2050 conversation in Australia?

There is a lack of clear strategy to meet company goals of net zero emissions by 2050 for most companies in Australia. Recently, a landmark, world-first test case was brought to the courts in Australia, challenging the veracity of net zero emission targets and climate greenwashing.   Despite public commitments, a few organisations have come out strongly and sought to increase their commitment regardless of the public scrutiny:

  • Australian property developer Lendlease
  • BHP
  • Rio Tinto 
  • Fortescue Metals Group
  • Australian Institute of Company Directors 

What can we learn about hydrogen in the zero-carbon drive?

There are different methods of turning hydrogen into power. One method of note is concentrating hydrogen gas in low volume amounts and keeping the storage fed with more water conversion. Hydrogen is more expensive to make than power delivery. The hydrogen created by splitting water takes a lot of energy to do that. When you burn hydrogen, you complete the chemical cycle to get water as a by-product, but because of inefficiencies, you get back a lot less energy than you used to create the hydrogen in the first place. Every time you burn hydrogen, you have a net loss of energy. On top of that, you have to find all the energy needed to compress the hydrogen for storage and transport. These are some of the lessons from Germany’s energy transition which has proved too costly with underestimated risks to supply:

  • Germany’s energy drive criticised over expense, risks
  • Renewables threaten German Economy & Energy Supply, McKinsey Warns in New Report
  • Iron ore giant Fortescue bets on green hydrogen in zero-carbon push
  • Iron Ore Giant Plans Carbon Targets for Customers in Green Pivot. 

Hydrogen’s main advantage is that it does not produce carbon dioxide which suits the zero-carbon drive and the biggest disadvantage is that it has to be specially manufactured using much more energy than it produces when burned. It is not generally available and is thus not a primary fuel. 

What is the future outlook of the zero-carbon mine agenda? 

The reality is that zero-carbon mine agenda requires a path to no fossil fuel production and consumption. There is a lot of challenge from economists and labour unions that suggest that this will take away blue collar workers with about 80% of energy coming from oil, gas and coal. There go on and mention that killing energy production would be a real loss of wealth for everybody. It would have a devastating impact on per capita GDP adjusted for inflation. Another topical issue is related to technological obstacles in the transition to zero-carbon. A wind turbine can charge up a mine, power it and put out zero emissions but the materials used to make it, shipping them, assembling them all make emissions. If it is possible to eliminate these then the zero-carbon agenda would be much more acceptable. The honest assessment is that NOTHING can have zero carbon footprint until we have eliminated fossil energy entirely from our mining use. Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) has been performed for all sources of energy, fossil and renewable. The Argonne National Lab has come out strongly with their GREET Model in which they harmonized many LCA studies to correct for varying assumptions and published a study for electricity generation. Overall, decarbonization is within our reach if the right technology solutions are implemented for future carbon dioxide-free operations

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Anglo American Opens First Green Hydrogen Station for Zero Carbon Mining Vehicles in Chile. Retrieved 31/08/21. 

Australia’s Fortescue sets sights on becoming world’s first supplier of green iron ore. Retrieved 31/08/21. 

Dr Andrew Forrest AO delivers speech at Clean Energy Council summit. Retrieved 31/08/21. 

Fortescue says government action on climate ‘critical’. Retrieved 31/08/21. 

In Era of Green Mining, Even a Zero-Carbon Project Won’t Do. Retrieved 31/08/21. 

New zero-carbon nickel mine: Action – buy the stock. Retrieved 31/08/21. 

Nussir faces scrutiny as it aims to build world’s first zero-carbon mining operation. Retrieved 31/08/21.