Sustainable Mine Design Begins With A Cultural Change

Mining companies that have ambitious sustainability goals might be running out of time when it comes to proving their commitment.

Sustainable Mine Design

Mine operators recognise that stakeholders want to see good returns in order to overcome negative historical perceptions. These returns are based not only on financial performance but also on the triple bottom line of planet, people, and profit. There is a growing consensus that companies with a strong triple bottom line are more adaptable and make for more reliable investments.

It is now time to deliver on the promises made by these companies which will require the assistance of mining development and growth technical teams. This is because design innovation contains some of the most significant opportunities to improve environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance. 

Engineers and designers must look beyond their technical disciplines to embrace whole-system complexities posed by sustainability challenges in order to realize the full potential of future mines and improve current operations. However, this does not imply that they have to abandon their core design values of safety, dependability, and cost-effectiveness. Teams must now simply take into account ESG factors as well.

The good news is that these traditional values and relatively newer ESG considerations can coexist peacefully. For example, environmental improvements such as reduced energy use or material movement save money. Engineers can assist mines in achieving win-win scenarios by using innovative approaches.

The question is how does one bridge the gap between where the company is now and where they have promised to be? A good place to start might just be company culture itself.

Recognizing The Risks

To align design teams with ESG goals, an organization must first understand the direction in which it wishes to move the needle and why. According to a White & Case 2022 market sentiment survey, the top concerns among investors and regulators are community impact, emissions, tailings management, and water usage.

While the ever-expanding body of ESG frameworks and governing authorities can be overwhelming and complex, this simplified data provides design teams with practical guidance. Concentrating on these top concerns is easier to handle than becoming an expert in everything ESG. Equipping design teams with the necessary tools, knowledge, and resources for these focus areas directs creative energy towards the areas where they will have the most positive impact.

Communicating Measurable Objectives

Once ESG risks have been identified, measurable targets should be communicated to all levels of the organization. Design teams must be clear about what they are aiming for.

John Doerr’s book “Measure What Matters” highlights the importance of setting and communicating clear, measurable goals for driving performance. This is what people wish to see in mining firms. For instance, all members of the International Council on Mining and Metals pledged to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 or earlier.

While decarbonization is the most widely discussed topic in the world of sustainability, miners publish a wide range of other measurable targets. Consider BHP’s goal of achieving gender balance by 2025, starting from a 2016 baseline of 17%. 

To welcome more women into a male-dominated workforce, mines must be inclusive workplaces. Furthermore, setting and measuring the goal is the first step in any design shift. It also entails sharing that goal outside of the C-Suite boardroom.

It is critical to strategize based on where the industry needs to be in 10 years, 20 years, or even further into the future. While the longevity of a company’s vision is critical to ESG performance, some of the more ambitious goals may appear unrealistic. Interim targets, such as progress goals every 5 or 10 years, provide a realistic roadmap to keep teams motivated. For instance, many of the companies that have committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 also have progress goals, such as a 30% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.

Encouraging The Workforce

Social capital is difficult to quantify and, as a result, is frequently undervalued. Mines of the future will not sprout on their own; they will be created by humans. A sustainable culture increases employee retention and motivates output, which effectively maintains a company’s intangible intellectual capital. Employers can help employees connect their work to a higher purpose by involving all levels of staff in sustainability and valuing sustainable solutions.

This is especially crucial for attracting the next generation of engineers who will position mining for a greener future. Given the importance of mining in our modern society and the energy transition, we have an incredible opportunity as an industry to meet this desire among team members.

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Concentrating On Business Optimization

As part of the cultural shift, leaders and employees must understand that sustainability does not have to be a financial strain. In fact, the opposite can often be true. Systems that use sustainable strategies have the potential to reduce costs and enhance mine recovery rates if implemented correctly.

For example, an active copper mine in Arizona recently completed a debottlenecking study to review its operations. They discovered that by modifying their grinding and crushing circuits, they could save energy. Because of the changes, they were able to reduce costs, energy consumption, and glasshouse gas (GHG) emissions while increasing recovery.

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