How will climate change affect mining? – Professor Ian Lowe

Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe AO op ed

The potential impacts of climate change are not well known or understood by the mining industry, despite them being clearly identified in the sixth volume of the IPCC report released in 2021-23.

Addressing impacts of climate change is a global problem. Industries that operate globally must be part of the solution by actively developing responses that can be both adapted and adopted across their locations.

Recent research shows that the impacts of climate change depend on individual company operations: which minerals they are extracting, which regions they are working in.

Extreme weather events across the board are a significant risk; an accelerating trend of dangerous rainfall events threatens mining operations as well as the production and transport of minerals.

At the same time, in northern parts of Chile, reduced rainfall has caused water shortages affecting copper production and putting pressure on lithium extraction – both essential critical minerals for the transition to net zero emissions.

Against that general trend, there have also been extreme rainfall events, affecting essential infrastructure and posing the risks of tailings dam failures. 

Higher temperatures are making operation of some mines more difficult.

Sea level rise has the potential to cause damage to ports and rebuilding costs are significant.

So climate change is threatening the production of critical minerals at the same time as mitigation programs are demanding increasing supplies. Navigating these two pathways will be challenging.

Securing the reliable supply of critical minerals for countries with manufacturing capacity against the backdrop of climate change is another pinch point.

The increasing demand for batteries and magnets for electric vehicles and community electricity systems, wind turbines and communications systems requires significantly expanded production of critical minerals: copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt and rare earths. Some of those minerals are mainly produced by China, causing policy analysts to worry about security and consistency of supply.

The challenge of climate change represents opportunities for countries such as Mongolia with its developing mining sector. However, its traditional livestock-based economy coupled with a dependence on coal mining for internal energy and export means the transition to global net zero is causing environmental impacts, along with governance, infrastructure, and workforce issues.

The mining industry there probably needs to expand to meet economic and energy goals, yet it is already in conflict with local herders over land and water issues, which have been exacerbated by climate change reducing the amount of available water.

Disruption of the agricultural system has caused increased migration to the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, resulting in more localised coal burning and increasing air pollution.

The country is now critically dependent on the coal industry, both for local electricity generation and for the revenue from exports to China. In many ways, its coal situation mirrors Australia’s. Similarly, it has significant deposits of other minerals that will be needed for the energy transition, so there is a realistic prospect that the economic cost of reducing coal production will be countered by the expansion of new mining ventures.

The situations in Chile and Mongolia illustrate some of the global challenges, which are also faced by mining operations in Australia. There are several more instances showing that climate change will require the mining industry to adapt rapidly in this critical decade.

The global need to effect a transition to net zero carbon operation is urgent, and offers miners significant opportunities.

The question is: are they ready?

Emeritus Professor Ian Lowe AO is chairing the climate change and mining session of the World Mining Congress 2023 in Brisbane (26-29 June 2023).