According to a 2021 review conducted by PwC, mining companies with higher environmental, social and governance (ESG) ratings outperformed the market with 34 per cent average shareholder return over the past three years – 10 percentage points higher than the general market index. Aside from this, the demand for minerals that go into clean-energy technologies is expected to increase six-fold in the next 20 years. For minerals such as lithium and copper – which are imperative to the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in energy and tech markets – the stakes are only going to get higher.
Developing quantifiable ESG criteria is an opportunity for mining companies to differentiate themselves as well as achieve ESG goals. Managing the ESG criteria in any company represents the company’s ability to manage renewable carbon and measures how much carbon it can reuse. There is not a lot of criteria available for managing carbon; however, one reliable tool that can be easily adopted by the industry to set transparent standards for socially responsible products is evaluating products’ carbon signature based on their Renewable Carbon Index (RCI). RCI is a tool currently used in cleaning and consumer goods, but there is value in applying the tool more broadly in mining.
RCI classifies the origin of carbon in a molecule and determines if it is from bio-based sources or petroleum-based derivatives. Specifically, it is a percentage calculated by dividing the number of carbons derived from renewable sources by the total number of carbons in the product – the higher the percentage, the more renewable carbon is present. A typical “green” product will have an RCI higher than 75 per cent, with 100 per cent possible for products with fully bio-based ingredients. Bio-based ingredients are derived from naturally occurring sources such as plants and other renewable materials. By using products with renewable carbon, one can begin to contribute to “decarbonization” as this carbon is being reused, according to the Renewable Carbon Initiative.
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Aside from large-scale initiatives to reach net zero, it benefits the mining industry to pay attention to the smaller steps that, added up, can make big contributions to broader ESG goals. For instance, common reagents used in mining are made from commodity sources and synthetic materials – ingredients that have an RCI of zero percent. Switching to bio-based reagents or adding bio-based intermediates with high RCIs into their processes is one small but significant way that mining companies can take control of the carbon sources present in their operations. In comparison to synthetic ingredients, bio-based ingredients are derived from naturally occurring sources such as plants and other renewable agricultural, marine or forestry materials.
One way to quantify the improvement that mines can make is by looking at a standard flotation mill operation. U.S. mines use approximately 50,000 to 400,000 gallons of reagents (frothers and collectors alone) per year depending on the size of the mine. If these products were switched from synthetic ingredients to renewable carbon, the “decarbonization” effort would dramatically increase.
It may be impossible to switch to 100 per cent bio-based reagents in our lifetime, but by taking small steps to improve the RCI of the products used on mine sites, we can lead to big changes in decarbonization efforts. By simply switching common synthetic ingredients to bio-based ingredients, the RCI value of the end products goes up. Mining companies and chemical companies should work together to bridge the gap between sustainable innovation and current specifications and requirements, by reformulating products when possible.
Laura Benavides is director of sustainability at Integrity BioChem and vice-president of technology at Integrity Mining and Industrial.