The mining industry has failed to gain the broad trust of society. Changing that is primarily the responsibility of the industry, but it is in everyone’s interest to see it happen, because the success of the energy transition depends on it, writes Rohitesh Dhawan.
Rohitesh Dhawan is president and chief executive officer of the International Council on Mining & Metals (ICMM).
Earlier this year, the EU put forward a bold and ambitious set of proposals to secure its future supply of the critical materials needed for the transition to a low-carbon energy system. Although the geopolitics surrounding the European approach have received most attention, there is a much more important dimension of global significance.
In its Critical Raw Materials Act, the European Commission proposed reducing the bloc’s dependence on third countries in sourcing the critical minerals – such as lithium, cobalt and nickel – needed for clean energy technologies. This will undoubtedly reshape the geopolitical landscape, but a potentially greater impact could come from the law’s emphasis on ensuring that these metals and minerals are produced responsibly and sustainably.
Despite the importance of mining products to modern life, the reality is that the industry has failed to gain the broad trust of society. That change is primarily the industry’s responsibility, but it’s in everyone’s interest to see it happen, because never before has the world needed so much from an industry that is so little trusted.
For example, just when we need the best and brightest talent to build the responsible mining industry of the future, graduates and potential future employees seem to turn away from mining or are encouraged by their universities to do so.
Last year, four UK universities banned mining companies from recruiting on campus and attending career fairs, while a global survey by consultancy firm McKinsey found that 70% of 15 to 30-year-old respondents said they would definitely or probably not would do not work in mining.
This should surprise no one, but it should worry us all. The thousands of new mines to be built in record time, including those considered strategic projects in the EU, need the support of local communities and the broadest investor base, and critically the best talent. All of those things depend on trust.
There are obvious reasons for people’s distrust. In 2021 alone, 43 people at ICMM member companies tragically died at work, and many more lives were lost in the wider industry year after year. Moreover, corruption, human rights violations, fatal dam failures and unnecessary environmental damage and cultural loss are unfortunately all part of our industry.
Even where individual companies have consistently performed well, the gap between the best and worst players in the industry remains unacceptably large. And while we’ve made significant progress in areas such as tailings (waste) management and decarbonising our operations, we still have a lot more to do – especially if we want to appeal to the next generation of workers.
Our two most pressing tasks are to uphold responsible mining standards at all times and ensure they reach every corner of the mining industry. These tasks start with industry but require the active participation of others across the EU and beyond.
A broader base of investors, especially those committed to positive environmental, social and governance (ESG) outcomes, should engage with the industry rather than divest or stay away. It is vital that governments stamp out illegal mining and align their legal expectations for all operators with leading voluntary standards for responsible mining.
Those standards, in turn, require the active involvement of metals and minerals users, such as automotive and technology companies, to improve performance at scale across their entire supplier base. And civil society organizations must continue to challenge all operators, regardless of size or location, to improve their performance through constructive and solution-oriented engagement.
But perhaps the most important action needed to build more confidence in mining lies in a shift in the way we, as an industry, have traditionally interacted with society. As Mark Cutifani, the former Chief Executive of Anglo American, recently said, “As an industry, we’ve too often ignored challenging voices and gone it alone instead of co-creating solutions.”
Faced with those critical voices, we tend to “set things right” by talking bee people (which is different from talking Unpleasant people) about the good we do. In doing so, we may have given the impression that our social and economic contributions, such as the jobs we create or the taxes we pay, somehow offset the negative effects. It’s not meant to be, but it’s hard to blame someone for feeling that way.
This moment instead calls for an approach that recognizes that while the benefits of mining may be local, regional or global, any negative impacts are always local and always personal. An approach that provides assurance, backed by principled action, that while minerals are critical, we will not mine them at all costs. And when things do go wrong, an approach that learns quickly from mistakes and doesn’t see disasters as company-specific rather than the systemic problems they often are.
As the EU continues to secure its future supply of critical materials, we face the ultimate test of our ability to learn from our mistakes and come together in this time of need. After all, nothing less than the future of our planet depends on it.