Pilbara Minerals Ltd.'s Pilgangoora lithium mine in Western Australia. Interest in lithium-ion batteries has been increasing in recent years, in line with the electric vehicle industry.
The pressure to lower emissions will intensify for the mining sector, Engie Impact CEO Mathias Lelièvre said in an interview with S&P Global Market Intelligence.
The mining sector is core to the supply chains of a broad swath of an economy increasingly focused on decarbonization and aligning with global climate goals. However, while a few first movers are targeting zero-carbon operations by 2030, only 19% of mining companies are on track to meet sustainability goals, sustainability and energy management firm Engie Impact said, citing data from CDP, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the global disclosure of corporate environmental concerns.
"There's really a strong willingness to act, but then it's very complex," Lelièvre said. "We know that we don't have all the answers yet. We all know that time is passing by, and we have less than a decade to really change and curb our emissions."
Engie Impact is working to accelerate the transition to carbon neutrality, as many companies are looking to become carbon neutral quickly, including giants in the technology and automotive sectors. While much of the focus on reducing global emissions has centered on power generators in recent years, Lelièvre said he expects many people to begin closely scrutinizing more sectors of the economy.
"We see that pressure everywhere; every segment, every vertical is increasingly getting looked at by every stakeholder, including the clients," Lelièvre said. "Your clients are telling you, 'You need to be carbon neutral. You need to move.'"
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Mining companies that want to sustain a social license to operate and continue to engage with those supply chains will have to do more than produce annual compliance reports, and demonstrate the details of their sustainability efforts down to the mine site, Lelièvre said.
Mining is an energy-intensive industry and it has a high emissions footprint. McKinsey & Co. estimated in January that mining is responsible for 4% to 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions in terms of the sector's Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions. Including Scope 3 emissions, comprising client and supplier output, links miners to about 28% of global emissions.
Engie Impact recently completed a Zero Carbon Roadmap for Vale SA's Goro nickel-cobalt mining operation in New Caledonia, which primarily produces nickel for the battery industry. Vale New Caledonia aims to transition to a zero-carbon mining operation within less than two decades despite an expected increase in energy production, Engie Impact said.
The number of mining companies pledging to reach new greenhouse gas emissions targets is growing. Vale released new emissions targets Dec. 3 for Scope 3 emissions, and Glencore PLC laid out plans Dec. 4 to become carbon neutral by 2050.
As companies set sustainability goals such as reaching net-zero emissions by 2030, many have identified the "low-hanging fruits" to get started, said Malavika Bambawale, Engie Impact's managing director of sustainability solutions for the Asia-Pacific region.
While there are many ways to target decarbonization, the methods chosen can significantly impact costs, risks and feasibility. Common topics among mining companies include more environmentally friendly electricity supply and decarbonizing vehicle fleets, Bambawale said in emailed comments.
Some process-related emissions can be more challenging to decarbonize, such as dealing with mine waste tailings. Those issues may be dealt with through offsets in the short or midterm.
"The main thing to consider for any solution is that competitiveness is key within the mining sector," Bambawale said. "The costs need to be recouped either through savings or through increased market differentiation and pricing for green minerals."
In addition to tracking emissions across a wide range of geographies and operations, mining companies face unknowns in the future of emerging technologies to reduce emissions. Lelièvre said Engie Impact will often identify a few projects that are already "in the money" alongside others that are more costly. Taking a portfolio approach and treating carbon the same way it manages cash can often lead to a financially beneficial result overall, Lelièvre added.
"When you look at an investment when you set the targets, then you need to change the way people think about the performance, not only on the financial bottom line but also on the carbon bottom line," Lelièvre said.
Since investments in the mining space also tend to be large and last over a longer term, companies should integrate right away to reach their goals, Lelièvre added.
"We don't need just nice plans," Lelièvre said. "We need action and we see that coming, including in this sector that is not an easy one to decarbonize."