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President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers the keynote address at the African Mining Indaba 2022 in Cape Town Picture: ESA ALEXANDER
President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers the keynote address at the African Mining Indaba 2022 in Cape Town Picture: ESA ALEXANDER

The African Mining Indaba, woven into a theme that focused on sustainability, particularly climate change mitigation, represented a giant leap for the global mining sector. It sent an unequivocal message that climate action is now central to competitive positioning.

But do the declarations and commitments made by industry leaders carry the required urgency to prevent the worst effects of climate change and biodiversity loss? After all, we cannot reach net-zero global emissions by 2050 if we perpetuate environmental and social injustice along the way.  

The global energy transition will require substituting fossil fuel-based energy with the use of low-carbon energy technologies (solar, wind, batteries). The problem lies here; low-carbon technologies are metal-intensive, meaning they need a lot of copper, nickel, and steel. The production of sufficient low-carbon energy technology to meet growing global energy demand will cause demand for these “energy transition metals” (ETMs) to skyrocket. This will require more mining, particularly in Africa, home to about 30% of the world’s mineral reserves.

Mining can create great opportunity and, in economies with good governance, has a particularly strong social contract. But unsustainable mining practices threaten to perpetuate the environmental degradation and social inequalities that continue to plague the African continent. Despite radical shifts in technology viability and an interest in providing tailored financing, new mines designed and commissioned today are still deploying the old modes. It is uncertain that increased mining of ETMs — much of it coming from mineral-rich African countries — will be green, equitable or well-governed. It is therefore imperative that the increased mining and production of ETMs decouples itself from carbon emissions and the other environmental and social risks that mining presents. 

Empowering communities, governments and investors

The consistency of messaging from Mining Indaba speakers helps reduce doubt for others. So it was encouraging to observe how the Indaba included conversations that incorporate environmental and social issues in a proactive and definable manner, while simultaneously including the economic factors. We heard from industry leaders about their innovation programmes, social change agendas and collaboration efforts. Industry coalitions presented on frameworks to create uniform and transparent reporting to empower communities, governments and investors to better assess mining companies’ contribution to social and economic development.

We heard from governments on their hopes for green and equitable economic growth, and continued efforts to strengthen co-operation. The importance of good environmental, social & governance (ESG) performance was also emphasised by financial institutions, signalling to miners that they need to up their game if they want to access finance in the future. 

The enormity of ensuring a just transition to net-zero mining in Africa is beyond the capability and resources of an individual company.

It is evident that Africa’s contribution to the climate crisis thus far is limited and that its economies are exceptionally vulnerable to climate impacts. This raises the question: “Is the strong focus on climate mitigation that relevant for Africa?” The answer isn’t a straightforward one. While action is needed to decarbonise the existing industrial bases, what is of equal — and perhaps even greater — importance to our continent is climate change resilience: building adaptation capacity to climate change and ensuring that future mining development “leapfrogs” fossil fuel technology choices and shares the benefits with communities and citizens. 

Shared value for all

We need to ensure that the expansion of mining in Africa to provide the world with ETMs results in shared value for all. At the same time, we need to make sure that decarbonising the production of these ETMs also generates net-positive environmental and social outcomes for all mining stakeholders. This means considering factors related to the protection of existing jobs and livelihoods, while creating new opportunities.  

Companies are stepping up to find solutions to climate change, and the narrative that company growth and sustainability are intertwined is a positive shift, but there remain countering internal pressures — and inertia. A clearer understanding by companies of the essential value sustainability efforts make to their business and updating management’s understanding of these fast-paced issues are vital to accelerate the pace of change. 

For those who have not yet developed a response, there are basic elements that must be applied. A starting point would be to assess their carbon footprint to understand the drivers of emissions and identify opportunities for carbon reduction. With these initial insights into baseline emissions and reduction opportunities, companies can set ambitious yet feasible short- and long-term net-zero targets to address Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. Some vision is also needed to address the areas of uncertainty and strive for collaboration — doing it alone is difficult, and unnecessary. 

The enormity of ensuring a just transition to net-zero mining in Africa is beyond the capability and resources of an individual company. Trusted partnerships and collaboration with various key stakeholders such as government, labour, local communities, industry associations and more can create an ecosystem for change.  

Mining companies must engage with stakeholders in a participatory and inclusive manner to better understand stakeholder needs and help inform decision-making. Simply minimising ESG risks is quickly becoming obsolete; miners need to ensure that accelerated decarbonisation action benefits all stakeholders.  

It is encouraging to see the strong focus on sustainability in mining. Mining majors and emerging economies re-imagining themselves as green champions is indeed a giant leap forward. But decarbonisation for the industry will not be easy. The steps taken so far — some bold and some hesitant — are only the first needed. The key will be advancing strategies and action plans coupled with timely action. Taking the next step, and the next in quick succession, is critical, because we cannot afford to delay action any longer.  

• Van Vuuren is director, Arp senior analyst, and Lawton-Misra a manager, at Carbon Trust Africa.

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