Commentary: A Higher Purpose – Mining’s crucial contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals

Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres speaks to attendees in January at the Sustainable Development Goals Ambition Lunch in Davos, Switzerland. The event is part of a series aimed at supporting and challenging companies to integrate their business with sustainable development. Credit: UN Global Compact.

Fall is traditionally the start of conference season and networking for the mining industry. Events including Mines and Money, the Northern Miner’s Global Mining Symposium, Precious Metals Summit, Denver Gold Forum, and 121 Mining Investment have moved seamlessly on-line, and back to back video meetings are now the ‘new normal’ for executives and investors alike.

The investments that flow from these meetings are the lifeblood of the mining sector, especially for junior miners, and also fundamentally important for growing our wealth, whether as personal portfolios or within pension plans. This year, Environmental, Social and Governance issues (ESG) have been front and center of many investment discussions, and are now widely incorporated into all company presentations, and real action on the ground is evident. At times, it might seem, ESG is the only subject of conversation at the table.

A new and important theme is developing: the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the mining industry’s contributions to these goals are starting to feature at industry forums and in the media. This is a welcome breakthrough, which speaks to a higher purpose for our industry.

The Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals are summarized by the UN as “…a call for action by all countries – poor, rich and middle-income – to promote prosperity while protecting the planet. They recognize that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth and address a range of social needs including education, health, social protection, and job opportunities, while tackling climate change and environmental protection. More important than ever, the goals provide a critical framework for Covid-19 recovery.” (The goals were adopted by 193 governments in September 2015 and comprise 17 individual, but connected goals, all of which seek to positively transform the world). Five years since their release, we have now entered the UN ‘Decade of Action’.

ESG is now widely embraced, and the mining industry’s role in achieving the SDGs is becoming more apparent and urgent.

The Sustainable Development Goals. Credit: United Nations.

We provide the needed metals and minerals for societal transformation to renewable energy, wealth generation (and preservation according to the gold bugs), new industrial applications, transportation and ever increasingly sophisticated communication platforms. As an industry, we are also successfully addressing our legacy by becoming trusted stewards of the natural environment where we operate, particularly with water management. We drive growth, development and poverty reduction in developing countries. Similarly, we drive those same issues in the remote parts of developed nations such as Canada or Australia, and by World Bank estimates, the extractives industry plays a dominant economic, social and political role in the lives of 3.5 billion people living in 81 countries. Mining can, therefore, make a transformative economic and social difference to host countries, and on the lives of their citizens when managed in the context of being trusted development partners.

September also saw the publication of two impactful reports on mining and SDGs: firstly, Mining and the SDGs: a 2020 Status Update by the Responsible Mining Foundation and the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment; and secondly, Gold Mining’s Contribution to the UN Sustainable Development Goals by the World Gold Council. (The latter report also formed the basis of a keynote webinar at this year’s Denver Gold Forum featuring CEOs from Newcrest and Golden Star Mining.)

The mining industry, especially the multinationals (e.g. AngloGold Ashanti, Anglo American, Barrick Gold, BHP, Glencore, Endeavour Mining, Agnico Eagle Mines) are assessed as having made good progress on some SDGs. Mid-sized producers, such as Lucara Diamond, which in 2018 became a UN Global Compact participant contributing to ten of the 17 UN SDGs, is an inspirational example of a company that places SDGs at the forefront of its business model, showing that SDGs are not the sole responsibility of multinationals, but for all businesses.

Here are a few examples of many good projects taken from the recent reports and webinars, all of which illustrate the exceptional impact that mining can have in achieving the SDGs:

SDG 3 (Quality Education) involves focusing on developing local skills through skills transference, improving school facilities (for both genders), scholarships and providing on-line degrees. Golden Star Mining, for example, noted that the depth of local homegrown talent has helped it manage through the Covid-19 pandemic. In another example, Endeavour Mining, with its ‘Growing Local Talent’ program, now has 75% of its general managers being West African, and 95% of the site workforce being nationals.

SDG 13 (Climate Action) is increasingly being addressed by our industry, through the provision of raw materials, such as lithium, cobalt and nickel, which are needed in a greener economy, and also in the measurement and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Canada is recognized as a world leader in electrification of its mines, such as at Newmont’s Borden gold mine in Ontario, where low carbon energy technologies and smart ventilation technology have been integrated into the mine plan from feasibility and into production.

Mining companies are also acknowledged as being leaders in SDG 17 (Partnerships for the Goals) by working with local institutions, governments and society in areas of governance, reducing corruption and infrastructure development. Agnico Eagle Mines, for example, is building, at their cost, hundreds of kilometres of all-weather and paved roads in Canada’s far north Nunavut Territory. These roads can be used by local communities to access previously difficult to reach areas.

Finally, an example of scale from SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) highlights Iamgold, which is collaboratively working with local partners in Burkina Faso to provide drinking water to over 100,000 people. All of these examples show the powerful positive impacts that mining can have on the world.

A Call to Action

As we enter the UN Decade of Action on SDGs, we continue to see rapid societal change, greater transparency, more values driven investments by younger generations, the rise of Circular Economy principles, and an ongoing need for good investment opportunities that adhere to world class ESG principles. As an industry we need to continue driving forward on all 17 SDGs, in particular Gender Equality (SDG 5) and SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation).

Why? The mining industry has a crucial contribution to make to our collective, better future. That is a higher purpose.

— Andrew Cheatle is a mining executive/director and geoscientist. He is passionate about the mining industry’s role in community and national development.



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