In November 2022, politicians, business leaders, and academics gathered in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, for the flagship event on climate crisis mitigation – the 22nd Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 27). Accounting for, according to McKinsey estimates, 4–7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, mining continues to be in the spotlight of any comprehensive climate discussion.

By now, leading mining companies have set carbon objectives for 2030, 2040, and 2050, aiming to completely reequip the sector in the coming decades. However, even 2030 is a distant deadline, and stakeholders are more interested in whether anything is being done right now.

“There is work being done, and you’ve got a clear roadmap for decarbonization with clear goals for 2030, 2040 – but the urgency is getting even greater, as defined by the science,” Nik Gowing, who moderated a session titled The Pathway to Net Zero for Mining and Metals, told industry leaders in his opening remarks.

On the bright side, we have already witnessed considerable achievements with respect to electricity consumption across the sector. For some sites, including several of the world’s largest mines, the share of renewable electricity has reached 100%. Nevertheless, even such pioneers cannot yet rest on their laurels, as greater challenges are still facing them – namely, tackling Scope 3 emissions (emissions generated throughout supply chains upstream and downstream of their operations) and, most importantly, reducing mining equipment exhaust gases.

“On a mine site, typically you would have 50–80% of the emissions from the diesel we burn to power these trucks,” noted Rohitesh Dhawan, chief executive of the International Council on Mining and Minerals (ICMM).

As COP 27 speakers reiterated, the industry will eventually have phased out CO2-emitting vehicles. Several pilot projects on equipping mining fleets with promising hydrogen-powered and/or electric vehicles are currently being implemented.

The problem is that, according to ICMM projections, zero-carbon vehicles will not be available on a significant scale until at least 2027. Considering the growing competition in EV supply chains, this may happen much later, especially for open-pit mines, among which the rate of EV and hydrogen adoption has been near zero. Given the growing pressure from stakeholders to take steps toward decarbonization, extractive industries cannot just wait for the delivery of zero-carbon trucks and loaders. Even if from 2027 onwards a large share of vehicles are electric or hydrogen-powered, decades will pass before the diesel trucks are retired and before innovation in battery manufacturing and hydrogen infrastructure develops to such an extent that operating alternatively powered trucks becomes feasible, even in remote areas such as the Arctic. (Remember that climate change makes weather more extreme in both directions – not only more severe heat waves but also more intense cold spells – and OEMs need to keep these environmental factors in mind.)

Therefore, instead of simply waiting for the scaling of the alternative vehicles market, responsible mining operators must consider what they can do to improve the energy efficiency of the fleets they run today. “Energy efficiency is a critical component of decarbonization; in fact, it accounts for the single largest element of decarbonization measures that we need to take,” Anthony C. Lea, President of the International Copper Association, emphasized at COP 27.

It goes without saying that the most impactful means of making industrial equipment more efficient is digitization and, in particular, digital solutions powered by artificial intelligence. Of course, this applies not only to extractive industries. The subject of big data and machine learning has been omnipresent at COP 27, whether experts were talking about mining, agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, or nature-based climate solutions.

It is absolutely indisputable that only through innovation will the economy be able to achieve its climate goals—an innovation that is yet to be widely understood. Rather than limiting innovation to designing new facilities and machinery (to be built from scratch and commissioned in some indefinite future), the way forward is to upgrade today’s operations with customizable data-powered solutions. Only such an approach can produce results quickly enough in the narrow timeframe the companies and their stakeholders have established. In the spirit of this, ICMM’s Rohitesh Dhawan concluded the mining and metals panel, saying, “This is the fastest we’ve ever gone, but it’s the slowest we’ll have to go.”

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