How sustainable is the mining industry? 

There are efforts by top companies towards their ESG agenda, but more on pollution and deforestation should be done to advance their plans. 

World-leading mining companies pride themselves on their commitment to sustainable mining plans. These plans take into account work safety, environmental awareness, and their impact on local communities.

For example, Anglo American has its ‘FutureSmart Mining’ plan, Newmont launched its developed tailings management at gold mining sites, and the BHP Group further developed its freshwater withdrawal plan in copper mines in South America. 

Technical innovations are essential and go hand in hand with the implementation of social policies and risk mitigation actions. However, understanding whether mining companies’ adherence to the Paris Agreement climate goals is crucial, as performative greenwashing has grave and irreparable consequences. 

How do the top companies compare? 

The Responsible Mining Foundation (RMF) — an independent research organization that assesses the impact of mining — scored Anglo American, Newmont and the BHP Group as the top three mining companies in terms of environmental responsibility in its Responsible Mining Index 2022 report.  

According to GlobalData’s database of company filings, Anglo American led in terms of mentions about the environment in the last five years (2017 to 2021), and it is maintaining a growing trend. Newmont doubled its environmental mentions in 2021 while BHP Group recorded a sharp decrease from 2019, a concerning trend considering it already had the smaller number of mentions among the three. 

The BHP Group’s decreasing environmental mentions within official documents seem to suggest that the mining company is less focused on its ESG initiatives in practice. Furthermore, when considering the BHP Group’s social media activity, its ESG-related posts increased by 40% in 2021 compared to 2019 and 2020, suggesting that the company’s sustainability business may be limited to just marketing efforts. 

Commitment pledges are fine, but successful systematic measures to reduce the company’s impact on natural resources and ecosystems are far more important. 

Beyond carbon dioxide 

The environmental chapter of the GlobalData ESG framework encompasses climate change, pollution, biodiversity and natural resources, each one broken down into different contributing factors. They are equally important, although focused adjustments need to be made according to the resource being extracted. 

However, tackling climate change and reducing carbon dioxide emissions are certainly the most widely discussed priorities. Indeed, Anglo American, Newmont and the BHP Group have achieved — and in some cases even exceeded — their fixed emissions reduction targets, as shown in their Sustainability Reports in 2021 and 2022. 

Therefore, since these top three mining companies appear to be committed to sustainable mining, the new burning question is: will these goals set by the industries be enough to cope with climate change? The International Governmental Panel on Climate Change says that these actions are too modest to reach the 1.5°C to 2.0°C scenario. 

Indeed, carbon dioxide is important, but it is not the only contributing factor. Although decarbonisation is useful and helps mining companies maintain their long-term reputation, measures on pollution and deforestation issues should appear more prominently in mining companies’ resilience plans. 

// Main image: Smoke around a factory. Credit: Bilanol via Shutterstock