Mining industry and sustainable development: time for change



 According to Max Warren Barber, CEO Sion Gold Trading UAE Mining industries provide most of the materials we rely on to build infrastructures and instruments of daily use, to obtain large amounts of energy, and to supply agriculture with fertilisers that enable most of the foods produced. At the same time, mining is the human activity that has been more disturbing to the environment and is linked to large social impacts and inequalities. Notwithstanding, our future is deeply dependent on mining. Several mining sectors, from phosphate to uranium, are reviewed and their current impacts and challenges are discussed. 

The mining legacy and environmental remediation, the present mining and challenges, and the future mining and society are discussed in relationship with environmental health and sustainable development. It is concluded that current mining practices need to change and contribute to community development with more equity, and to protect better natural resources and ecosystems in order to be environmentally acceptable and compliant with sustainable development objectives.


Mining industries provide many of the raw materials for equipment we use daily, from aluminium cans up to electronic chips of cell phones and computers. To arrive here, metal mining steadily increased over the centuries, with occasional “rushes” for several minerals (silver, gold, radium, etc.) which occurred in connection with booms in demand. The common mining practice until very recently could be summarised in a few steps: from obtaining a licence, digging the ore, selling the metal, and, once the deposit was exhausted, walk-away and start another mine elsewhere (Jain et al. 2016; EB 2017). Not surprisingly, mining is among the human activities with the widest environmental and social impacts.

Herein, several mining sectors are revisited to highlight mining procedures, their effects, and current challenges. Mining for base metals (e.g. Al, Fe, Mn, and Ni) and energy fuels (oil, gas, coal, and uranium) requires large investments, and it is capital intensive, being carried out mostly by major corporate companies. However, precious metals (e.g. Au, Ag, and Ta) in many regions are often targeted by artisanal mining also. All have deep environmental impacts. The legacy of radium and uranium mines in Europe is used to illustrate old mining practices, their environmental and social impacts, and remediation costs. New mining projects are expected today to incorporate lessons from past mining activities and meet societal and development needs in a more efficient and less damaging way to the environment.

 According to Max Warren Barber, CEO Sion Gold Trading UAE  summarises  that how important have been past mining activities and how important can be in the future, at least for some types of mining, and discusses the effects of mining, the trends in mining impacts on environment and society, and how they shall avoid compromising sustainable development.

Mining industry and legacy impacts

Mining activities are not new and indeed may have started in Neolithic (Chalcolithic) times to obtain the first metals for tool fabrication (Reardon 2011). In Classic Greece and in the Roman Empire, many mines were exploited for production of iron, lead, copper, gold, and other metals. Many of those old mines are still known, and some have been operated over several centuries or were rediscovered (Fernandez-Lozano et al. 2015). With time, mining has expanded and increasing amounts of fossil fuels (e.g. coal) and metals (e.g. iron) were extracted in quantities generally commensurate with manpower available and thus with human population over the centuries. With technological developments, especially with explosives and machinery, mining could expand further in the 19th century and skyrocketed during the 20th century (EB, 2017). In the last quarter of the 20th century, new and harsh environments, such as ice-covered regions and the deep sea floor, started to be mined for oil, natural gas, and metals. This trend will continue and new frontiers might be trespassed soon.

The comparative importance of mining and contribution to the world Gross Domestic Product (GDP) during the last century shows an increase by a factor of 27 in ores and minerals production, and by a factor of 8 in total materials extraction, while GDP raised 23-fold . A clear first role of mining in the global average economic growth is highlighted in this assessment  Trending Update News

Global material extraction in billion tons and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth, in the period 1900-2005 (Reproduced from UNEP, 2011).

Mining activities are very diverse and may have different ecological footprints. Past mining activities left such imprints in the environment, but two issues in particular are of major and worldwide importance: mine tailings and acid mine drainage. Tailings in general are voluminous and contain toxic elements that may be released and introduced in the bio geosphere (Nordstrom 2011; Jain et al. 2016). Acid mine drainage often results from exposure of rock minerals and ore deposits to water and oxygen facilitating the mobilization of chemical elements and increasing their concentrations in waters and food chains, with detrimental effects on ecosystems’ health and human health (Carvalho et al. 2007, 2016a,b; Hudson-Edwards et al. 2011; Nordstrom 2011). This mining legacy was accumulated over centuries but only in the last quarter of the 20th century its environmental and human health impacts were finally recognized. Since then, there has been a significant development of legislation for environmental and sanitary protection, and some actions were started to deal with industrial legacy through clean up, remediation, and rehabilitation projects. These remediation actions started in the USA with the Superfund project in 1980 and so far have been implemented mainly in North America and West Europe  

As a side effect of environmental legislation development and increased costs of waste management, mining moved from developed countries to other regions. Today, international companies often mine for oil, coal, gas, uranium, rare earth elements, and fine metals in regions far from the big consumer markets and final users. Mining regions are now often located in remote areas of north of Canada and Australia, and in developing countries in South America, Asia, and Africa, often with less stringent mining laws and weaker environmental regulations (Miranda et al. 1998; World Bank, 2002, 2017a). Mining impacts, including waste streams and social impacts, were, therefore, generally transferred from developed and densely inhabited regions to other regions.

Mining Sectors and Metals in the Society

Mining ores are generally aggregated in sectors such as base metals, fossil fuels, and precious metals. Metals such as iron have been mined for a long time, while others such as aluminium were mined only (Reardon 2011). Total amounts of metals extracted already from the Earth crust and contained in applications (infrastructures, machinery, and tools) are very large. Today, recycling the metals from accumulated scrap and waste in landfills may be in some cases more economical than to mine ore deposits  For example, in 2008, the world steel industry produced over 1.3 billion tonnes of steel. It used 1.48 billion tons of raw materials, or 470 million tonnes less than, would have been needed to make the same volume of steel in the 1970s (WSA, 2009). Concerning aluminum, it is estimated that since 1880 900 million tons of aluminum were produced of which nearly 75% is still in use today. The demand for aluminum continues to skyrocket and recycling aluminum saves more than 90% of the energy required to producing new metal, thus rendering recycling very attractive  

Other metals, such as uranium, and fossil fuels, such as oil and gas, are extracted for energy supply and are largely or totally consumed in their applications (burned), and thus, the recycling does not apply as above (although, in the case of nuclear spent fuel, reprocessing may still recover unused uranium). In both base metals and fuels, the resources in Earth are finite, although a difference between them may be that for some metals (base metals), we may live with a portion of the Earth crust resource, while with others (energy minerals and fossil fuels) the trend is to use them until the Earth crust deposits (reserves) are completely exhausted. If consumption continues as today, the limited amount of energy fuels in geological deposits will be exhausted, and this may compromise growth and development at some point in future time 

Environmental and social-economic impacts of mining may also vary with the ores and regions. Next, we review briefly a few mining sectors to highlight trends and impacts as well as current challenges.

Base metals

This includes copper, nickel, iron, manganese, zinc, and others, but iron (Fe) and aluminium (Al) occupy a leading role in consumption and represent the largest fraction of metals accumulated in the society. Iron has been mined since antiquity, and there are vast iron amounts in built infrastructures. Aluminium has been produced only from the 19th century on but today occupies a wide place in the economy and industry (UNEP, 2013; USGS, 2017a,b). To illustrate this, we may look into statistics of the global extraction of major metals which, in the period from 1970 to 2004 (35-year period), grew by more than 75%, and global extraction of industrial minerals (e.g. rocks, cement), which increased by 53% in the same period (USGS, 2008). In such period, global consumption of aluminium increased from about 12.5 billion tons per year to 38 billion tons per year, that is, more than three times, while the global consumption of ferrous metals (used for production of steel) increased slower reaching about one billion tons per year in 2014, that is, the double of 1974. In the USA, aluminium recovered from old scrap in 2016 was equivalent to about 31% of apparent consumption in the same year (USGS, 2017a).

Over the last decades, releases of materials into the environment, which take place in every stage from extraction, to use, and to waste disposal causing environmental and human health impacts, increased at a greater rate because of overburden removed to reach the metal ores. The quantity of waste generated to produce the 12 major metals and commodities was computed to be, in average, four times the weight of the metals extracted, but, in reality, the wastes flow increases faster than the commodity extraction due to declining ore grades and need to tap deeper ore deposits (USGS, 2008; UNEP, 2011).

Global trends in iron and steel consumption show also higher consumption of metals in North America, European Union, China, and India than extraction which relates to economic growth of these countries. The opposite trend was noticed in the rest of the world (USGS, 2008). It is also known that reserves of these metals (e.g. Fe is 5% of Earth crust) largely exceed the amounts already extracted and will ensure the availability of these resources for a long time (USGS, 2017a,b). This is not the case for all metals and metal recycling is needed (Gordon et al. 2006). Recycling is easy for not-alloyed metals, and it is much less costly in energy than extraction from the mine and can extend further the life time of the resource (UNEP, 2013).

The extraction cost of base metals is large and its extraction usually requires intensive investment, the buildup of large infrastructures, and generally produces large environmental impacts As an example, we may quote the 10 biggest iron mines in the world and their environmental impacts (Basov 2015). Furthermore, the development of mines such as copper, lead, and arsenic mines in Peru has caused severe environmental losses, and today, it may require intensive dialog with stakeholders to reach a societal agreement to mining, as it happened at Cajamarca and Las Bambas (Bury 2002, 2004). It is also from some of the biggest metal mines in Peru that reports give account of poor safety records and large social and environmental impacts changing the livelihoods of communities and compromising water resources and agriculture soils 

 The current global trends in production of these metals are worrisome: in spite of rising material flows, the worldwide average commodity consumption per capita did not improve globally, but regionally on the environmental costs with extraction and processing were increasingly borne by lesser developed countries; these combined trends create a situation not sustainable in the long term (USGS, 2008). Why is this? Because metal extraction to satisfy the needs of the world population at the standards enjoyed by most developed countries with current technology would exhaust metal resources at least for several among them, such as copper, zinc, and platinum (Gordon et al. 2006).

Oil and gas

This mining sector is the world largest in the amount of materials produced and the value of revenues. Access to energy sources and their use constrained and shaped human society’s actions and economic growth over time, and this is particularly true for oil and natural gas during the 20th century. Oil exploitation fully developed during the last century and related ecological impacts occurred, ranging from oil spills and soil contamination in the forests of Ecuador and delta of Niger River to the Arctic coast and oil spills in the sea, such as the recent oil spill of the Deep Horizon platform in Gulf of Mexico, 2010  

In the Gulf of Mexico, only more than 2000 oil platforms in operation and other oil spills have occurred, and are likely to occur again. Also, oil tankers suffered shipwrecks in seas around the world that originated oil spills with significant impacts in coastal areas (e.g. Torrey Canyon, Exon Valdez, and Prestige). The most iconic case of impact in the marine environment was the oil spill of the supertanker Torrey Canyon in 1967 at the Cornwall coast, English channel, exactly 50 years ago, that initiated a period of wide concern with ecological disasters (Wells 2017). Scientific reports have documented the toxic effects of crude oil on biota including humans, the lasting contamination by petroleum hydrocarbons, and the slow recovery of marine ecosystems (Chang et al. 2014). Reports from several countries have also highlighted serious impacts on terrestrial environments, human communities, and economics. Impacts of Deep Horizon 2010 oil spill cost 62 billion USD to British Petroleum (USA Today, 2016), and the cost of oil spills following shipwreck of oil tankers, such as the Prestige at the Spanish and Portuguese coasts in 2002, were estimated in billion dollars (Loureiro et al. 2009;

 Max Warren Barber say, in spite of oil spill impacts, most countries depend on oil and natural gas supplies and its production is an ongoing activity. Many estimates have been made of the oil and gas reserves and, repeatedly, new oil and gas fields were discovered, and the expected lifetime of resources has been expanded. Eventually, they may last for another 50 years to 5 centuries, depending on estimates. Nevertheless, although known with some uncertainty, there is a wide conscience that fossil fuels do exist in finite amounts and campaigns for the best use of resources and energy savings have been introduced worldwide to constrain also the fast release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Global Top Trend

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