Q&A: SRK Consulting

Ashleigh Maritz, senior environmental scientist at SRK Consulting, on measures miners should take to mitigate the impact of climate change

Q&A: SRK Consulting

Q: In your opinion, how cognisant is the SA mining industry of climate-change risk?
A: Mining companies are generally highly aware of climate-change risk and are putting in place policies and initiatives that go well beyond current regulations. These risks are being added to the considerable range of challenges that the mining sector regularly faces, and operations are constantly adapting.

We have also seen lenders – financial institutions and project funders – putting forward their own requirements for their clients, to assure themselves that mines are taking the necessary steps to protect their investments from climate-change risk. The Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures was created to improve and increase reporting of climate-related risks, and the EU is looking at making these recommendations compulsory. The mining sector is building these requirements into its public reporting, and making sure it is ready to deal with these risks at an operational level – to protect its resources, assets and viability.

Q: Increased temperatures are just one aspect of future weather patterns that will affect mining. What do you think are the top direct impacts the industry should be most concerned about?
A: Among the main direct impacts of climate change is that finite resources, such as water, can become more scarce. This is already being observed in various parts of Africa and the world. Water scarcity, of course, affects not just the mining operation but the communities around it – raising risks to the mine’s social licence to operate. As water becomes less available in these situations, competition for this resource grows and can lead to tension between mines and communities.

The availability of water from public water schemes is a growing challenge in countries such as SA. The water schemes and pipelines that mines have traditionally relied on are not always fully operational, meaning mines have to make their own arrangements to source sufficient water for operations. For new operations or expansions, this requires careful planning at pre-feasibility and feasibility stages. Additional water has to be sourced responsibly with due regard for other stakeholders in the catchment area.

In addition to the scarcity of water, climate change also exacerbates the risk of flooding from intense downpours – as the variability of rainfall increases. This raises the possibility of mine dams and process ponds overflowing, leading to discharge of polluted water into adjacent water courses, thereby breaching environmental legislation relating to containment of polluted water. To adapt to these conditions, many mines will need to invest in costly retrofitting of infrastructure. In general, where the growing risk of flooding is identified, the design of water containment and treatment facilities on mines will have to be reconsidered.

A central concern related to increasing rainfall levels is the integrity and safety of tailings dams, which are designed to accommodate certain volumes of water and waste material. Specific principles within the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management place an emphasis on climate change and its consideration in the design and management of tailings dams.

The changing climate is also driving biodiversity loss, with temperature rises changing habitats much more quickly than animals can adapt. Activities such as deforestation and other land-clearance activities to make way for mining and/or its surrounding communities further exacerbate this impact. Together with the destruction of natural habitat, vegetation removal has added impacts such as loss in soil integrity, as well as the loss of a carbon sink for carbon absorption. While mines may not be directly impacted by this climate-change risk, they can do much to mitigate biodiversity loss by anticipating the effects of the informal human settlement that invariably occurs around their operations.

Q: Indirectly, what other impacts will the sector have to contend with?
A: An important indirect impact facing mines stems from the growing focus on the social transition to mine closure – where mines should have a focus on helping communities plan for livelihoods in a post-mining era. Among the initiatives that are often started as part of the social-closure vision are agricultural projects; the challenge is now to consider the likely effects of climate change on such endeavours, and to reconsider whether they will be sustainable. This is highly relevant given the context of declining employment levels in mining since 2012.

Q: It’s reported that the mining industry globally is responsible for between 4% and 7% of GHG emissions annually. How should miners go about reducing those?
A: The main focus of many SA mining companies in reducing emissions has been on Scope 2 emissions – relating mainly to the carbon footprint associated with the electricity they procure from the national grid. By developing their own solar-energy plants or sourcing from renewable-energy producers, many mines have made considerable progress in this direction. The next step will be to look in more depth at Scope 1 emissions – those related to what the mining operation itself emits – and at Scope 3 emissions, which relate to the upstream and downstream supply chain.

From a disclosure point of view, stakeholders such as stock exchanges are starting to ask mining houses how they are reporting on upstream emissions from service providers and suppliers. They are also asking about the downstream uses of their products.

Q: How is SRK utilising the latest tech as far as data gathering and processing goes, and what role does this play in formulating future models for the mining industry?
A: There are models available to predict important indicators such as future rainfall and temperature levels – such as NASA’s Modern-Era Retrospective analysis for Research and Applications (MERRA) – and we factor these into our climate-change risk and impact assessments. The MERRA database, for instance, can provide site-specific modelled temperature, rainfall, humidity and wind data.

Q: Why does SRK place such importance on environmental monitoring?
A: Environmental monitoring is important for at least two reasons. The first is to provide a baseline from which any changes or impacts from mining can be objectively measured. For example, nitrate levels in water or soil may be naturally high in an area where mining is planned – or may indeed come from another source. If mining is commenced before an environmental baseline study is conducted, it would be more difficult to prove that mining was not the cause of these unusual levels. Secondly, an ongoing monitoring function will be able to detect any changes to the environmental indices measured in the baseline study. This will give mining operations early warning of issues that may need urgent attention, so that impacts and risks can be managed.

Q: Mines are introducing renewables into their energy mix. What other environmental measures should they be adopting?
A: There are many ways for mines to reduce their environmental footprint. Concurrent rehabilitation is a positive strategy to restore ecosystems; there is seldom any need to wait until mining has ceased and the mine is formally closed. This can hasten the return of natural vegetation and restore integrity to the soil – underpinning the capacity of the ecosystem to act as a carbon sink and to restore natural habitats.Using less water, as well as treating and recycling water, is also an important contribution, as is the regular clearing of alien invasive vegetation, which can impede the return of indigenous ecosystems.

Q: Most mines are in rural areas, where the surrounding community depends on them not only for jobs but also services. How will climate change affect those services?
A: Climate change exacerbates risks for both mines and communities, and in rural areas there often tends to be a greater reliance on the services provided by mines. This relationship of reliance, however, can become problematic if the changing climate places undue stress on mines’ ability to meet community expectations. Water scarcity, or even prolonged drought, may mean that all stakeholders have to make do with less. Managing the perceptions over ‘who is entitled to what’ can be difficult in situations where there is a trust deficit between mines and communities. This comes back to the central importance of mines’ social licence to operate.

Q: How will future mine design be affected by climate change?
A: In terms of climate-change mitigation, mine designs are increasingly embracing energy-efficient technology to reduce carbon emissions. This is clearly simpler for new projects, while existing operations have the more difficult task of retrofitting new solutions into established spaces or configurations. Mine-infrastructure design is having to take a more conservative approach to flood frequencies and intensities, ensuring that tolerances are higher and structures are more robust. Where rainfall intensity is becoming more variable, there needs to be greater capacity for attenuation, storage, treatment as well as recycling of water.

On the social side, increased rainfall could also bring a higher risk of vector-borne diseases – affecting both the mine and surrounding communities. Future mines may need to design solutions and responses to these challenges, which extend well beyond the technical aspects of mine development.

By Patrick Farrell