Mining

Not An Oxymoron

Hard hat
mining helmet.jpg
An enormous carbon footprint caused by a mind-boggling hunger for energy; environmental degradation due to acid mining drainage (AMD) and other waste matter and a plethora of social ills: South Africa’s mining industry is struggling with a bad reputation. 

Fixing these issues is vital for the survival of the industry, and needs to be treated as a priority. 

Let’s face it: without mining, South Africa would not – or rather, could not – be the financial powerhouse it is today. The industry is one of our economy’s main drivers, a major job creator and an important pillar of the sub-Saharan African economy. But as always, there is a dark side.

Take the sector’s insatiable hunger for energy. While recent figures do not seem to be available, older statistics reveal that South Africa’s mining industry consumed 31 757 terawatt-hours in 1999 – some 18.4% of the country’s total energy usage in that year. 

A 2004 draft of the government’s Energy Efficiency Strategy, published eight years ago, states that the industrial and mining sectors combined account for 47% of South Africa’s total energy consumption. 

As the bulk of South Africa’s electricity is generated from coal, one can state that mining is responsible for a large part of our carbon footprint. 
The energy restrictions that sprouted from the 2008 power crisis do not contribute much to improve South Africa’s carbon emission rate. 

Figures by the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, which is the main climate-change data and information analysis institute of the United States Department of Energy, show that South Africa in 2008 emitted 435 878 000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide. In 2009, a year after energy restrictions were implemented, this estimated amount stood at 445 800 000 metric tonnes. 

Both the South African government and the private sector have become increasingly aware of the impact of mining on our carbon footprint and  the effects of climate change. 

“The sector has to adapt to global challenges such as the full pricing of carbon and energy, on which the sector relies significantly,” said former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel during this year’s Mining Indaba. The annual event took place in Cape Town earlier this year and attracted thousands of mining experts, politicians and business leaders and decision-makers.

"Can we exploit our mineral resources in a sustainable manner while still meeting our international obligations to reduce our carbon emissions?” he asked the crowds. “This is a difficult question but, in short, the answer has to be yes. 

We do have to raise mining output, but we also have to become more energy-efficient and our energy mix has to have a lower carbon content. This will cost – make no mistake about it,” he added. 

“If we sequence the transition properly; if we invest in the necessary research and technology and if we use the appropriate balance of fiscal measures, we can support the transition to a lower carbon future while raising mining output. 

“Finland’s famous story of becoming a world leader in environmental sustainable forestry gave the country a new comparative advantage. We have an even greater potential to develop and then export clean mining technologies,” said Manuel.

The challenges of energy efficiency and curbing climate change are just two of the sustainability issues South Africa’s mining industry needs to come to terms with.

Polluted soil, air and water; AMD; toxic and radioactive waste dumps; poverty; health and safety issues among those who work and have worked below the Earth’s surface; inadequate living conditions – the list of environmental and social problems linked to mineral extraction is long. 

“A lot of firms say that the problems linked to mining are beyond their control. They, however, should realise that and acknowledge that extraction of minerals has a hefty social cost,” commented Mamphela Ramphele, chairperson of Gold Fields and a director at AngloAmerican. She was one of the keynote speakers at the 2012 Mining Indaba. 

“Companies must own the problem and use their innovative power to find solutions. Sustainability should be one of their strategic imperatives, and companies should attempt to contribute to 
development.

Miriam Mannak
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