Ecology and Environmental Professionals in the Changing Sustainability Landscape: Mineral Resources and the Energy Transition – by Karen Nash MCIEEM

In this blog I consider some of the issues relating to responsible mining of mineral resources to meet the rapidly increasing needs of the energy transition and climate change mitigation. It is crucial that the environmental and ecological management profession should be active in strengthening its place at the table and hence its skills and knowledge contribution to efforts to resolve these challenges. Demand for transition metals and construction materials to make everyone’s new electric vehicle and super-insulated housing brings with it inherent dilemmas of supply chain sustainability, environmental and social impacts including biodiversity and land use. A ‘responsible mining’ approach is inextricably linked to ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance), and this creates a need for objective and timely expertise for mining and construction companies, their environmental and social specialists, and their investors. We need more direction – I want to put forward some signposts for thinking about what and how environmental and ecology professionals ought to be aware of and engaging with, and hence move towards a collective understanding of our potential touchpoints for effective and timely interventions.

The aim is to encourage and promote further engagement of environmental and ecology professionals with informed discussion, and to reinvigorate a more collaborative, coherent and successful approach at local, regional, national and global level to addressing and restoring the inherent dilemmas and challenges and contradictions of the drive to the energy transition.

We should be calling for creative solutions and partnerships – the necessary transformation involves changes in behaviour, culture, material flows and systems of management and knowledge transmission. There is a real need for joined-up thinking and collaboration – and an exploration of alternative modes of working.

Why focus on the energy transition?

The energy transition in the UK (wind-solar-geothermal-wave-eVehicles) raises fundamental questions about mining and the mineral resources supply chain. Metals extraction has been called one of the world’s most contentious, environmentally disruptive and influential sectors[1]. Seventeen mineral commodities have been highlighted that are essential (with current technologies) for the clean energy transition to renewables. Like it or not, the production of energy transition metals comes with a significant energy and emissions cost: for example, to switch the UK’s entire fleet of cars to battery electric vehicles, it is estimated that 207,900 tonnes of cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate, 7,200 tonnes of rare earths neodymium and dysprosium, and 2.63 million tonnes of copper will be needed[2]. This is twice the current annual production of cobalt, an entire year of the rare earths production, and three quarters of the current annual production of lithium. Replacing the world’s current stock of cars/internal combustion engine vehicles would need forty times these amounts. To meet the ambitions of the entire energy transition, over 3 billion tonnes of minerals will be required to achieve the climate change limit target of 2°C.

It is somewhat ironic that energy-extractives and the ‘just transition’ have been defined as a fair and equitable process of moving towards a post-carbon society, when meeting future ‘clean’ energy demand actually means more energy and carbon-intensive forms of resource extraction which will likely enlarge the geographical scope of biodiversity, ecosystem and environmental impacts.

There is scope for optimism though, given that within the mining industry the impact of climate change – both from the perspective of material risks (risks of climate change to the business) and salient risks (risks of business activities on the environment and communities) – has already increasingly been at the heart of discussion, debate and action over the past decade and more. There has been considerable very recent activity in the development of standards and performance indicators (e.g. IRMA Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, ICMM International Council for Mining and Metals Principles and Guidance, IFC Standards for Environmental and Social Performance and Guidance Notes updates, GISTM Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management). There is ample guidance on how mining can become more responsible – for example in the ICMM Mining Principles (Box 1). This necessarily increases the need for environmental expertise and collaboration to achieve responsible mining. This is where the environmental and ecology profession must step up.

The scope of the ICMM Mining Principles:

  • Ethical business practice and sound systems of corporate governance and transparency
  • Decision-making that integrates sustainable development in corporate strategy and processes
  • Respect for human rights, as applied to employees and communities
  • Implement effective risk-management strategies and systems that account for stakeholder perspectives
  • Pursuit of continual improvement in health and safety performance
  • Pursuit of continual improvement in environmental performance
  • Contribution to biodiversity conservation and integrated land use planning
  • Responsible production through consideration of lifecycle approaches
  • Pursuit of continual improvement in social performance
  • Proactive engagement of key stakeholders on sustainable development challenges and opportunities

Adapted from

The role of the environmental and ecology profession

Environmental expertise is required to identify, mitigate and manage the impacts of mining operations across the globe and in all environments. The vulnerability of mining projects to climate change is recognised (not least water stress, physical instability, flooding impacts on the local environment and local communities). There is also a growing inventory of legacy sites – historical mine sites which continue to present an ecological and community challenge.

Our coordinated interventions should be happening at all phases and all scales to engage with sustainable approaches to addressing ESG issues in mining: this means during project conception and mine design, construction, operation, closure, rehabilitation and site restoration.

We have to make positive linkages as we work across disciplines. Why ‘linkages’? Because so many of the challenges are multifaceted and require not only out-of-the-box thinking but real and immediate action. For example, the UNEP 2021 report Making Peace with Nature identified many objectives for the crucial coming decade[3]. Included in these are:

  • Reduce carbon dioxide emissions while at the same time conserving and restoring biodiversity and minimising pollution and waste.
  • Earth’s environmental emergencies and human wellbeing need to be addressed together to achieve sustainability.
  • Increases in resource use and waste generation drive global environmental change in ways that transcend borders and continents
  • Climate change, loss of biodiversity, land degradation, and accumulating chemicals and waste reinforce each other and are caused by the same indirect drivers
  • The achievement of the sustainable development goals is threatened by an array of escalating and mutually reinforcing environmental risks
  • Achieving sustainability will entail interventions across scales and sectors and changes to incentive structures, management systems, decision-making processes, rules and regulations

As a profession, and as individual members of society, we can and should do more to be collaborative and reflect on how we can be far more proactive in engaging critically and addressing the environmental harms and costs of the energy transition and its mineral resource base. We must not forget that it is demonstrably possible for a mining project to be at the same time both profitable and responsible. Indeed, who would not want to achieve both these goals? To fail to do so is by definition irresponsible, a position which is surely difficult to justify at any level be that economic, technical, environmental, or societal?

As a profession we can offer joined up thinking and action in relation to:

  • The energy transition and circular economy
  • Climate change, decarbonisation, and informing the NIMBY debates
  • Resilience – ecological and human environmental systems, ecosystem-based adaptation
  • Biodiversity – offsets, net positive, carbon sequestration, nature-based solutions
  • Rebuilding global societies and economies post-pandemic ‘the great reset’ (which is becoming quite a whimper… sliding back to business-as-usual)

We have all been working intensively, some of us since before the Rio Summit in 1992, so there is little slack for increasing intensity yet further – instead I suggest that we should be looking for alternative ways of working, collaborating, inventing and realising positive outcomes. As Einstein is reputed to have said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

I think that CIEEM should not remain ‘impartial’, because the energy transition is happening. We have to step up, apply best practice, encourage a stepwise change in the way we work to achieve early and timely focus on whole of lifecycle approaches to design and development of the mineral sector. We need confident joined up thinking, collaboration, and alternative commercial models (I’m so fed up with the competitive tender model) to get us there in double quick time.

It will take time and energy to establish and leverage effective and sustainable intra-professional relationships at national and local levels to both address the issues (what our clients need us to do cost-effectively) and to ensure that our work rapidly and coherently improves environmental and social outcomes of the energy transition.

Can CIEEM act as a catalyst to maximise the positive outcomes?

Karen S. Nash MPhil MCIEEM FRGS

VP Environmental and Social Performance, Micon International Co. Ltd

Karen Nash is an international environmental and social consultant and educator living on a developing permaculture/agroforestry smallholding near Limoges in the Perigord Natural Region, France. She is active in the natural resource, utilities, energy and education sectors, predominantly extractives and energy transition developments. She has worked on mine sites worldwide and has extensive experience in all regions of Africa. She is fully bilingual (French/English) with working knowledge of Spanish, Portuguese, German, and elementary Arabic. She is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a Full Member of the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management and a Member of the IUCN (World Conservation Union) Commissions on Education & Communication and Ecosystem Management.

[1] Kemp, D., and Owen, J. (2021). Public-Private Enquiries: Institutional Intermediaries and the Transparency Nexus in Global Resource Development/ Research Note: Global Environmental Politics 21:2

[2] Herrington, R. (2020). Mining Our Green Future: Nature Reviews.

[3] UNEP (2021). Making Peace with Nature.

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