Mining in the twenty first century

Published in Rio Tinto’s Review magazine, in February 2008.

Mining coastal dunes for mineral sands is one of the most environmentally controversial of all forms of mining as the public furores over Saint Lucia and Madagascar make clear.  Yet, as can clearly be seen at Richard’s Bay, the environmental footprint of mining operations is relatively small and a very high level of rehabilitation can be accomplished rather rapidly. This gap between the public’s perception of the environmental impact of mining and the reality of those impacts is the industry’s trust deficit.  Successfully reducing this deficit will be a major task for the mining industry as we enter the 21st Century.

Richard’s Bay is a measure of just how deep this deficit has become. The road from Durban to the mine runs through about 150 kilometres of rolling green hills with scattered stands of tall trees stretching as far as the eye can see. It looks very pretty. But it is, literally, an ecological catastrophe on a massive scale. The green hills are covered in vast monocultures of sugar cane highly dependent on huge fertiliser and pesticide inputs. The stands of trees are imported eucalyptus which drain and impoverish the soil. What was once the rich  biological diversity of East African savannah has been transformed into a pretty, green, biological desert over the past four decades without a murmur of protest reaching the global media.

Farming and forestry do infinitely more damage to the environment than does mining, but attract far less hostile protest. Over the next forty years the population of the planet will double again to some 11 billion and real incomes will continue to rise. One of the few things it is possible to say with any confidence about this rapidly changing prospect is that human impacts on the environment will grow – and with them public anxiety about the effects of those impacts. If the mining industry is to maintain its licence to operate and its access to resources in an increasingly environmentally sensitive world it must understand the issues better, achieve continuous improvement in its environmental performance and succeed in dramatically reducing the trust deficit.

The first step is to understand the issues. As well as the fifth anniversary of the Earth Summit, 1997 was also the twenty fifth anniversary of that grandfather of the whole global conference series, the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. This was the event that first put the environment on the political agenda. The twenty five years since then, however torturous and difficult they may have seemed, have been the easy politics of the environment. The next twenty five years will be dominated by the need to tackle the hard politics of the environment.

The easy politics of the environment has a familiar agenda: air and water quality; wastes and recycling; noise and nuisances; chemicals and radioactivity; endangered species. In tackling this agenda the OECD countries have made significant progress over the past twenty five years. Air and water really are cleaner, much more waste is recycled, contaminated land is being cleaned up. It is in the developing world that these problems remain unchecked, especially in Asia where a recent  report by the Asian Development Bank claimed these problems were now so serious that they were undermining economic prospects for the region – a message dramatically reinforced by the smog which affected large parts of the region throughout the second half of the year.

The OECD’s success is a result of a particular set of political circumstances. By the beginning of the seventies the need to do something was clear to everyone. When rivers are catching fire or buried in foam feet thick it is pretty obvious something is wrong. Furthermore, when governments did do something there were many more winners than losers and it turned out that, far from being expensive, solving environmental pollution problems very often cut costs as well.

A sophisticated environmental policy tool kit was readily available to governments, mostly regulation and some voluntary initiatives with a few fiscal measures coming into use in recent years. Rising public anxiety over the health effects of pollution acted as a constant driver on government to use the available tools. The creation of departments of the environment ( they have all come into existence since 1970 ) provided an institutional framework for maintaining the momentum and the effects on the economy of successful policies were at worst marginal.

The agenda for the hard politics of the environment is only now becoming clear: climate change, soil conservation, forests, the oceans, biodiversity, water again, but this time as a quantity rather than a quality issue. All of these items were on the agenda at Stockholm but there has been no significant progress in tackling them. In every case the rate of environmental degradation has far outpaced the rate of government action.

A look at the political circumstances helps explain why. The need to tackle these problems is not so obvious or unchallenged as the need to tackle pollution inviting procrastination. When governments do tackle them, there are far more losers than winners – just think of the real difficulties involved in getting people out of their cars.  What is more, the most immediate losers are often the poor who are least able to adapt to change. There are far fewer win-win options available. The price of Britain’s leading role on climate change was the decimation of the coal industry.

There is no handy policy tool kit for governments to make the transition to sustainable development, which is what tackling the hard politics requires – you can no more regulate against climate change than you can for biodiversity. Indeed, there is still no agreed set of indicators, nationally or globally, with which to mark the transition. Furthermore, concerns about future resource availability have nothing like the political driving force of concerns about health and departments of the environment do not have a strong enough horizontal reach across governments to provide a robust institutional framework to impose policies whose economic effects will be central.

We are not fundamentally short of the resources, capital or technology to offer twice our present population a decent quality of life without undermining the ecological foundations of the economy. But putting them together in a sustainable manner is not a task for governments alone. They have a real role to play, and they can play it better, but unless local communities, voluntary organisations and the business community find new and more effective ways of working together to carry the bulk of the load we will approach the tenth anniversary of the Earth Summit in  far worse condition than we are now.

If the environment is the problem, sustainable development is the answer. There has been a great deal of futile effort put into attempts to define sustainable development.  We often forget that the whole of our economy that is not underpinned by fossil fuels and non-fossil minerals is dependent on the productivity of six major ecological systems – croplands, rangelands, forestlands, freshwaters, the atmosphere and the oceans. Degrade the productivity of those systems by over-exploitation or pollution and you degrade the productivity of the global economy. Making the transition to sustainable development is simply the task of delivering rising real incomes to twice the present population without further degradation of those systems.

This presents the mining industry with a strategic opportunity to re-position itself as being a major part of the solution rather that a large part of the problem.  Given the rapid increase in population no sustainable path to the future can take place without sustained economic growth – indeed this was one of the key messages of the Brundtland Report which launched the idea of sustainable development. Compared to almost any other resource or manufacturing industry, mining adds more value for less environmental impact.

Furthermore, replacing the goods and services provided by mining with goods and services of  biological origin would do infinitely more harm to the environment than making use of minerals. In the developing regions of the world, one of the most urgent imperatives in making the transition to sustainable development is to increase the incomes to the poor. Few industries offer poorer countries as good an opportunity as mining for increasing incomes rapidly, and not just increasing incomes, also transferring skills and technology.

The mining industry has a strong case to make for playing a central role in the transition to sustainable development. But for that case to be believed in the court of public opinion mining must rid itself of its outmoded image of being dumb, dirty and damaging. This will require the industry to demonstrate continuous improvements in environmental performance year on year at every stage from exploration to closure. That performance record can then supply the foundation for a systematic effort to change perceptions of the industry by ensuring that the reputational benefits of each improvement in performance are fully captured.  Performance improvements on their own will not change perceptions, efforts to change perceptions not based on real and continuous performance improvements will soon be seen through. Success in the mining industry of the 21st century will go to those companies that get this equation right.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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