The mining sector is a key contributor to many developing countries' economies in terms of both employment and gross domestic product (GDP). For instance, in Tanzania, the direct contribution of the mining sector to GDP rose from 6.7% in 2019/2020 to 7.2% in 2020/2021, and it is anticipated to reach 10% by 2025.
In addition to this valuable economic contribution, it has a role in achieving the ambitious goals set by the Paris Agreement, limiting global warming to 1.5°C. This monumental shift hinges on the deep decarbonisation of the global energy sector with a transition towards renewable energy sources and low-carbon technologies. This is inherently tied to the availability of critical minerals, including copper, aluminium, nickel, lithium, graphite, manganese, cobalt and others, making it a mineral-intensive venture.
The challenge is how to maintain the industry's important economic contribution and its key role in renewable energy and low-carbon technology while addressing its own environmental impacts. Meeting the global net zero emissions target by 2050 requires a significant surge in production. Mining operations lead to the release of GHGs owing to various factors, including energy consumption, deforestation and activities within the supply chain. Without a transformative overhaul, scaled-up production could lead to exponential increases in GHGs and exacerbate other environmental and social challenges such as impacts on water resources (pollution, over-extraction, or disturbances to local water systems), biodiversity loss and the impact to people's livelihoods at and around potential mine sites.
By reducing and balancing GHGs, we can limit global warming and its devastating impacts on ecosystems, biodiversity and people while pursuing sustainable economic development and inclusive growth. In essence, net zero is a crucial step toward the long-term wellbeing of our planet and its inhabitants.
To realise this net zero vision, mining must reduce emissions by around 90% from 2020 levels and, ultimately, eliminate residual emissions.
The staggering demand for metal mining to reach net zero emissions targets is illustrated by BloombergNEF, which estimates that metals worth $6 trillion to $10 trillion will be required between 2022 and 2050. Furthermore, the International Energy Agency (IEA) highlighted that electric vehicles and lithium ion batteries need approximately six times the critical minerals of internal combustion engine counterparts, and onshore wind farms require nine times more minerals than fossil fuel-based power plants.
A significant amount of energy is required throughout the life of a mine. Within mining operations, grid electricity and liquid fuel, mainly diesel, are the primary energy carriers, not only for production and ore transport but also for cooling, ventilation, pumping water and hoisting workers. The decarbonisation of the mining sector is therefore linked to the energy consumption patterns and energy targets of the mining companies. However, the impact of energy reduction initiatives on the energy consumption patterns and the GHG inventories are not always clear. Also, there are no internationally binding guidelines on which policy measures should be used to achieve decarbonisation since the Paris climate change meeting in 2015.
The consequences of mining these critical minerals are profound and multifaceted. It is estimated that the mining industry accounts for about 4-7% of GHG emissions globally. Scope 1 and scope 2 CO₂e emissions account for 1%, while the majority goes further down the value chain - scope 3 emissions amount to 28% of global emissions.
Addressing these complex challenges and working towards achieving net zero emissions by 2050, or ideally sooner, necessitate a sustainable approach to mitigate these impacts. The mining sector must find ways to meet the surging demand for critical minerals while operating sustainably. This involves a staged implementation plan, incorporating, for example, renewable energy technologies; the adoption of zero-emission transport methods such as green hydrogen and battery electric vehicles; electrification; offsetting strategies; operational energy efficiency measures; incorporating the management of environment, social and governance (ESG) impacts; policies; and securing access to sustainable finance. All these will improve social and environmental outcomes and build community and supply chain resilience, enabling a just transition to net zero GHG emissions.
As a sustainable finance institution, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) has outlined comprehensive guidelines for science-based decarbonisation strategies. These guidelines underline the reduction of emissions across scopes 1, 2 and 3, laying the foundation for mining operations to embrace credible plans with interim emission targets, well-defined technology deployment strategies and efficient resource allocation.
The IFC's approach goes beyond reducing emissions. It prioritises regional resilience and positive social and environmental impacts, seeking to enhance community and supply chain resilience. The organisation is committed to facilitating a just transition, in which communities can actively shape their future within a new climate-conscious economy, fostering community resilience in the process.
Recently, the IFC introduced the net zero roadmap for copper and nickel value chains, offering mining companies a strategic framework for decarbonising their operations. This will help to identify and address the broader challenges and opportunities that the global energy transition will present between now and 2050, for example, helping the mineral sector engage with its supply chains to decarbonise. This will be an essential aspect of the mining companies meeting their own scope 3 net zero targets. The roadmap can be tailored and applied to other critical metals to enable a successful global energy transition.
In 2022, the IFC published a comprehensive overview focusing on the impact of sustainable mining development and energy initiatives. It plays a pivotal role in financing projects at every stage of development, ranging from pre-development and construction to production and expansion. All these enable long-term economic growth in host countries by stimulating job creation, boosting exports and increasing fiscal revenues. It provides assistance with evaluating impacts, preserving biodiversity, promoting health and safety measures and engaging with stakeholders, which enhances the social acceptance and support within communities. All these efforts underline the IFC's dedication to investing in green minerals, supporting renewable power to mines initiatives and championing a just low-carbon future.
Climate actions and sustainable development are inseparable. The mining supply chain should incorporate decarbonisation solutions that consider ESG co-benefits and deliver a just transition, which in turn can contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The journey towards achieving net zero emissions by 2050 is a monumental endeavour. The mining sector's key role in providing essential minerals for the clean energy revolution is undeniable, and it comes with immense challenges and responsibilities. However, through the visionary leadership of institutions such as the IFC, collaborative efforts across the mining value chain, best practice sector policy and capacity building, a sustainable and inclusive low-carbon future is well within reach. The roadmap to net zero is not just that: it's a path to a brighter, greener and more equitable world for all.
Rose Mayembe is a Tanzania-based senior environment consultant with RSK Group, a global leader in the delivery of sustainable solutions. Her expertise lies in environmental engineering and management, and she specialises in climate change and sustainable development.
 International Finance Corporation (2023), ‘Net Zero Roadmap for Copper And Nickel Technical Report'
 McKinsey Sustainability (2020)‘Climate risk and decarbonization: What every mining CEO needs to know'. Available online: https://www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/sustainability/our-insights/climate-risk-and-decarbonization-what-every-mining-ceo-needs-to-know#/ (accessed 17 October 2023).