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  • Nick Cuba

What's new in extraction and society - 2/28/2020

Updated: Mar 16, 2020

A wide shot of the red Yandi iron ore mine in Australia

Earlier this month, a perspective piece in Nature Geoscience from Azadi et al. highlighted the need for transparent accounting of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with metal mining (Link to Paper). For the example of copper, the authors lay out the various sources and sinks of CO2e in the supply chain, and provide estimates of the total GHG associated with the production of each of forty minerals in 2018. These estimates are based on prior work by Nuss and Eckelman and primary production totals from the US Geological Survey and the British Geological Survey. While commodities like gold have markedly high GHG emissions per kg of elemental content, the largest total emissions come from production of aluminum and iron by virtue of their high volume of production.

Such an exercise is valuable given that emissions related to resource extraction are often overlooked. A UN Environment report from spring 2019 found that over half of the world’s carbon emissions result from these activities, and extraction and processing of metals and other minerals accounted for 26% of global carbon emissions (Link to Report). Emissions was not the only domain of impact measured by the study: extraction was linked to 80% of observed biodiversity loss, 85% of ecosystem water stress, and 20% of human health impacts from air pollution.

A broad-based, global energy transition away from carbon-intensive sources in favor of renewables will necessarily involve an expansion of mining activities to allow for scaled up production of the material components of power infrastructure (Link to World Bank Report). This expansion will include extraction of minerals without extensive histories of production such as Indium, Neodymium, or Rare Earth Elements, but it will also entail continued production of commodities such as copper with huge existing extractive footprints.

This need for new commodities will mean the onset of extraction in new frontiers, where new environmental impacts stand to disrupt social dynamics. But even in regions where it is established, mining will face challenges from changing environmental conditions due to climate change, especially the hydrological and hydro-social. Odell, Bebbington, and Frey (Link to Paper) synthesize research on these themes and present a conceptual model for describing the directional and coupled links between climate change and mining, and how they work to influence public policy and industry practice.

Please send us any links to stories or papers that would be of interest to the communities of research and practice around issues of extraction!

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