Jumping into a Greener Future: Leapfrogging and the mining industry

Leapfrogging is a theory of development that advocates for modern, currently-available technologies to be adopted in developing countries for the sake of sustainability. What does it mean for mining and how can it benefit the industry? Opportunities and challenges abound. In the words of Marlowe, the great British playwright: “To jump or not to jump; that is the question”. In the following paragraphs, we shall do a little looking, in hopes of encouraging a little leaping.

Developing countries have a fundamental choice: they can mimic the industrialized nations, and go through an economic development phase that is dirty, wasteful and creates an enormous legacy of environmental pollution; or they can leapfrog over some of the steps originally followed by industrialized countries, and incorporate currently-available modern and efficient technologies into their development process. (Goldemberg, 1998)

is in essence the theory of “trickle-down technology”, where developing countries seek to gain from adopting modern technologies without the burden of constructing, replacing, or maintaining legacy systems. One much lauded example is the transformative effect that the proliferation of cell phones has had in Sub-Saharan Africa; modern cellular technology has revolutionized banking, commerce and healthcare in developing economies, in addition to serving its more obvious purpose of telecommunication.

The potential benefits of leapfrogging are vast, because it creates an environment for emergent shared value; however, there is one regrettably common reason why leapfrogging might fall short: the nominal costs of modern technologies are often insuperable. In the mining industry, while antiquated technologies are often nominally cheaper, they are less efficient and costlier to the environment. Indeed, the environmental externalities essentially constitute a subsidy from local communities to the mining industry. As such, sustainable solutions are actually cheaper in the long run.

During our group’s first brainstorming session, we got to a point where we asked one another: “Who are the main actors in this entire leapfrogging thing?” The answer, in a word, is stakeholders, i.e. anyone who stands to gain from trade. Hence the responsibility for leapfrogging lies not only on firms within the mining industry but is shared by a large number of stakeholders who include public officials, local communities and NGOs amongst others.

Team 蛙跳开拓者 have a strong, multidisciplinary approach.

According to stakeholder theory by R. Edward Freeman, a successful company should be aware of the needs, the role and importance of its stakeholders. In this theory, management’s main responsibility is to provide value for the stakeholders. In addition, the company should act so that they avoid any damage to the stakeholder relations or even destroy its relations with them. According to Freeman’s theory, the company’s operations are ethically and morally sustainable if it takes into account the needs of different stakeholders, and recognizes that different groups are important to the company’s own operations. By observing stakeholder relations in a composed way, the company aims to morally and ethically run a sustainable business. Therefore, stakeholder theory encourages companies to leapfrog to achieve sustainability.

Stakeholders can be any group that is one way or another linked to the company or is in the company’s sphere of influence. Often companies’ important primary stakeholders may include financiers, owners, customers and staff. Furthermore, for example the public sector can be taken as a stakeholder. In the stakeholder network, can also be included indirect stakeholders of the company, or the directly affected parties of the company, such as subcontractors of subcontractors. Stakeholders can also be nature and people living near the company’s site.

The mining industry is dependent on a large auxiliary value chain, which presents challenges and opportunities for leapfrogging. We would like to take energy (production & consumption), waste management, recycling, and ore extraction as some examples.

Electricity accounts for 32 per cent of a mine’s total energy use, so finding ways to reduce energy use can result in significant savings for mining companies. Moreover, pressure from government regulators and a need to reduce energy costs and carbon footprint are pushing the mining industry to use more renewable energy.

The attraction of solar power could even be greater due to the fact that mines are located far from the grid. In remote locations, the supply of conventional energy is often very critical and costly. An additional advantage is that solar power can happily coexist with many different secondary fuel types such as natural gas, LNG, LPG, biogas, industrial off-gas, coal methane or diesel. There have been many projects and concepts dedicated to the use of renewables in the mining industry.

One study indicates that adopting renewable energy can result in a positive impact in share valuations across the mining industry. Even without energy storage solutions or changing consumption behaviour, mining companies with many remote locations can reduce their total costs by up to 2% by implementing renewable energy integration.

Waste management is the collection, transportation, and disposal of garbage, sewage and other waste product. Waste that is improperly stored can cause health, safety and economic problems. Mining waste also impacts the environment. As managing and storing waste efficiently and safely is costly and labour intensive, the mining industry particularly stands to gain from leapfrogging in waste management. As it stands, waste-related accidents are all too commonplace in mines around the world. The consequences of spillages, leakages, etc., are not only economic but also social, culminating in the loss of social license to operate. The losses from ill-conducted waste management, therefore, are a major issue for the mining industry.

Mining companies may adopt certain strategies to improve their waste management, such as commercialising waste or re-using it for other mining purposes. There is a call for an integrated, or circular, approach towards environmentally friendly mining with an emphasis on recycling and reuse, the recovery of value-added products and exploiting biotechnologies.

Waste management regulation is often sorely lacking, particularly in developing countries. Where regulatory requirements do exist, there is often a lack of sufficient monitoring and governing. Most of the time, companies should take the initiative and manage their waste properly, in order to save money and ensure their long-term operations. At the same time, they might do well to encourage better legal framework and industrial standards within their local communities. This would strengthen stakeholder relationships and give proactively green companies a competitive advantage.

Mining, as a process, can generally be divided in to two types: surface mining and underground mining. Out of these two, surface mining is more commonly used to this day. The main advantages of surface mining compared to underground mining are its operational flexibility, ore recovery, productivity, safety and cost. The obvious downside of surface mining is its large size right on the surface where the soil and rock is removed to gain access to the wanted mineral or ore. This operation affects large areas and can be very harmful to local ecosystems.

Because of the high demand of various metals in recent history, the largest surface mineral deposits are becoming exhausted. This means that mines will need to go deeper into the ground to access new mineral deposits, and subsequently underground mines will become more prevalent. As mineral deposits become increasingly inaccessible due to the very nature of underground mining, greater innovation will be needed in both process-design and mining equipment. These are the areas that could also hold opportunities for leapfrogging.

Recycling metals should be easy, because metals are, in theory, infinitely recyclable with no quality loss. However, recycling can be inefficient, too difficult or non-existent because of people’s habits, bad product-design or poor recycling technologies. The sustainable use of metals should be based on a closed loop of metals, and leapfrogging in recycling could help achieve or at least come closer to that goal.

Recycling copper in India: the demand in housing, telecommunication, power and transportation is on the rise, so also the demand of copper is increasing rapidly. India is a net importer of copper and has little primary production of copper itself, so the need of secondary resources for copper is rising. The recycling business of copper is unorganized and unregulated. Efficient, organized and market driven recycling of copper could act as an important feedstock of resources for the high demand.

In summary, developing economies stand to gain the most from leapfrogging into the future with current-day technology. Their businesses partners, such as the mining industry, also stand to benefit in the spirit of shared value. The availability of modern, exciting green technologies presents an opportunity for local, innovative implementations of leapfrogging. Technology is certainly a crucial component for tackling our increasingly ubiquitous environmental challenges, where regulation alone is not enough. Once more, to quote that great poet Percy Shelly: To jump or not to jump? Having briefly surveyed different aspects of leapfrogging, it becomes quite clear that leapfrogging is the way forward for the mining industry. What does this all mean in practice then? The attached photo is a teaser of things to come!

Written by,
蛙跳开拓者 (Wa Tiao Kai Tuo Zhe): Bui Vinh, Haakana Anna, Knight Christopher, Korhonen Milla, Skolc Francesca, Xu Junhua