Mining and sustainability
Text by Jessica Nielsen
The most common definition of sustainable development is: development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Brundtland, 1987). United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals represent the current global understanding on sustainable development (UN General Assembly, 2015). However, the SDGs are not perfect. They have been criticised for focusing only on measurable targets, contradicting themselves and defining development within too narrow frames (Liverman, 2018a; Liverman, 2018b; Nightingale, 2018).
On the other hand, the main value of the SDGs lies in the way they have gained global advocacy. Formulating goals, while considering all the different challenges, interests, cultures and beliefs globally, is not easy. For the purpose of reaching international consensus, complex questions are destined to be simplified. The SDGs have managed to set the global world to a common course, and offered a framework within which to make decisions and take action (Glass & Newig, 2018; UN General Assembly, 2015).
One of the goals, SDG 13, urges the international community to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (UN General Assembly, 2015). In the Paris Agreement, signatories pledged to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, limiting global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. In practice, reaching this target requires reaching zero emissions. Since one of the main GHGs is CO2, this is often referred to as reaching carbon neutrality (IPCC, 2018). The key is to stop using fossil fuels. Since the world has been depending on fossil fuels since the early 19th century, this shift contains many challenges (Salvia, 2021).
Now the main question is: what are we going to replace the fossil fuels with? So far, high hopes have been put on green technology, also called clean technology (Yang et al., 2020). These solutions do meet the requirements of being less GHG intensive, or even carbon neutral, which should solve the problem. However, their manufacturing does require minerals, especially rare earth metals (World Bank Group, 2017). We are fundamentally heading towards a future, where instead of using fossil fuels as our major energy source, we are fueling our society with solar and wind energy through the use of mineral based batteries. This has also been recognized in the SDGs, more specifically SDG 7 (UN General Assembly, 2015).
As a societally significant industry, mining has the potential to contribute to the local economy and employment (Tiainen et al., 2015). But there are also many problems related to mining, ranging from ecosystem destruction to human rights violations, that cannot be ignored (Everingham, 2012; Mudd, 2010). Moreover, the GHG emissions of primary mineral and metal production have been estimated to equal 10% of the total global energy-related emissions in 2018 (Golroudbary et al., 2019). Both the positive and the negative aspects of mining are going to be discussed in more detail later in this blog.
Since mining is an extractive industry, it is fundamentally unsustainable through the eyes of the Brundtland definition (Brundtland, 1987; Tiainen et al., 2015). However, in their article Tiainen et al. specify two different levels of sustainability, “strong” and “weak”. They recognize, that due to its extractive nature, meeting the requirements of “strong” sustainability is out of reach for the mining industry, but it can substitute for the value lost in environmental exploitation by promoting long-term benefits (economic, social or environmental) that are equal to or greater than the lost values, and aim towards “weak” sustainability (Amezaga et al., 2011; Tiainen et al., 2015). A lot of hope has also been put on circular economy solutions, urban mining and mineral recycling. These issues will be discussed in more detail in other blog posts. In a nutshell, the mineral recycling industry is still taking its first steps, and some of the main challenges are the lack of infrastructure, operators and regulations, the market for recycled materials is still small and most of the products that we would like to recycle in the future are not made easily recyclable today (Nilsén, 2020; Xavier et al., 2019).
Achieving carbon neutrality in a sustainable way is not as easy as shifting our energy source from fossil fuels to green energy solutions, while continuing business as usual. Drastically reducing the amount of resources we are consuming is crucial. That brings us back to the core idea of sustainability and to the Sustainable Development Goals, more precisely SDG 12 (Brundtland, 1987; UN General Assembly, 2015).
As a conclusion, the SDGs have their limitations, but they are a globally agreed framework. The idea to fuel our society with green energy through mineral based batteries, instead of with fossil fuels, has its problems as well. But it is the most achievable solution for reaching carbon neutrality available today. The important thing is to not overlook the negative impacts the increasing mining activity has on nature and on human society. We do not want to start another fire while trying to put out the first one.
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