The Environmental sustainability of mining in Australia: key mega-trends and looming constraints
At first 'sustainable mining' could be perceived as a paradox--minerals are widely held to be finite resources with rising consumption causing pressure on known resources. The true sustainability of mineral resources, however, is a much more complex picture and involves exploration, technology, economics, social and environmental issues, and advancing scientific knowledge--predicting future sustainability is therefore not a simple task. This paper presents the results from a landmark study on historical trends in Australian mining, including ore milled, ore grades, open cut versus underground mining, overburden/waste rock and economic resources. When complete data sets are compiled for specific metals, particular issues stand out with respect to sustainability--technological breakthroughs (e.g. flotation, carbon-in-pulp), new discoveries (e.g. uranium or U), price changes (e.g. Au, boom/bust cycles), social issues (e.g. strikes), etc. All of these issues are of prime importance in moving towards a semi-quantitative sustainability model of mineral resources and the mining industry. For the future, critical issues will continue to be declining ore grades (also ore quality and impurities), increased waste rock and associated liabilities, known economic resources, potential breakthrough technologies, and broader environmental constraints (e.g. carbon costs, water). For this latter area, many companies now report annually on sustainability performance--facilitating analysis of environmental sustainability with respect to production performance. By linking these two commonly disparate aspects--mining production and environmental/sustainability data--it becomes possible to better understand environmental sustainability and predict future constraints such as water requirements, greenhouse emissions, energy and reagent inputs, and the like. This paper will therefore present a range of fundamental data and issues which help towards quantifying the resource and environmental sustainability of mining--with critical implications for the mining industry and society as a whole.
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