Striving for a Balance

Essential materials produced by mining companies play a vital role in the global transition to a lower carbon economy. Yet, mining activities have a far-reaching impact on the environment and society. This represents both a challenge and an opportunity to mining companies. As a result, mining companies are constantly striving to improve the efficiency and sustainability of mining operations by identifying and implementing new innovative solutions.

By Dr. Kilian Neubert

Mining is essential for obtaining almost all of the raw materials needed for the production of industrial and consumer goods. It is at the root of everything we do, whether we switch on a light, drive a car, start up a machine, enter a building, make a phone call, or use a computer. Since the mining industry relies on natural resources, it has a paramount obligation to deal responsibly with the environment.

Mining has indisputable effects, both direct and indirect, on society and the natural environment. Exploration, construction, operation, and maintenance bring about changes in land use and have a wide range of consequences. Modern mining projects therefore start out with comprehensive environmental assessments and engineering studies. The public is involved in important decisions, and compliance is sought with numerous laws and ordinances relating to the environment, from protecting the natural habitats of local wildlife to monitoring water quality.

From brownfields to brightfields

“The extraction of raw materials is essential to human progress,” writes Volker Wrede in his book Bergbau gleich Raubbau? (Is mining destroying our resources?), published in 2020. “Mineral resources are especially necessary for meeting the Sustainable Development Goals established in 2015 by the United Nations, in order to feed the world’s population and bring about an energy transformation,” he adds. In his view, in spite of its unavoidable impact on nature, mining can be carried out in an environmentally acceptable manner, if it is accompanied by proper measures.

The mining industry has accordingly assumed a greater obligation to report on its sustainability activities (Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance, ESG) and to release certain kinds of data on a continuous basis. For sustainable mining to succeed, everyone involved, must keep a close eye on the impact and take measures to prevent environmental harm.

The mining industry is becoming increasingly active in the area of renewable energy sources. An example is the transformation of brownfield sites. Contaminated areas or abandoned mining locations are being put back to use through the installation of solar arrays or wind turbines. In this way brownfields are being converted to “brightfields” with economic potential. The operators of these systems are moving towards sustainable production through the use of modern, resource-efficient technologies for drives, conveyors, and transport systems. They are also introducing measures for water protection and waste avoidance.

Achieving a balance between economic, ecological and social objectives

Mine operators act sustainably, when they strive for a sound balance between economic, ecological, and social objectives. They focus on careful allocation of scarce resources, which includes minimizing energy consumption, waste, and emissions. They also optimize their transport routes and choose the right facilities and systems for tasks, such as conveying and loading. Through these measures, they can adapt their processes in a sustainable manner to the production conditions.

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