Sustainable mining: a vision for Australia to lead the world

Making Australian miners more ethical could also make them more competitive. AAP

Recent high prices for minerals have inspired a lot of companies and countries to start mining. But with a lead-time of up to five years for developing a mining operation, it is difficult to take advantage if you are not ready to go when prices rise.

Australia has been a big part of global mining in the last 30 years, but within the next decade it will have a lot more competition. In a world where anyone with minerals is starting to dig, there is an important opportunity to talk about where Australia will be when more countries are ready to sell.

A 2005 CSIRO study looked at how different sectors of the Australian economy were doing in economic, social and environmental areas. It found that whilst economic and environmental performance were above the national average, social indicators lagged. Good social performance means looking after the community near a mining site. It also means connecting with “responsible” or “ethical” supply chains for metals.

Coltan: a “conflict mineral”. The Advocacy Project

So what are “ethical” minerals and metals?

If you’ve bought a diamond in recent years, you’ll probably know about “conflict” or “blood” diamonds that come from countries where diamonds are mined to pay for weapons or armies.

The United States takes the issue of conflict minerals so seriously they have now created a law (the Dodd Frank Act) that require minerals from the Congo to be labelled so consumers can avoid products that contain them.

Anyone who has been to Taronga or Melbourne Zoo recently, will know about the campaign to save gorilla habitat by asking people to recycle their mobile phones. Gorilla habitat in the Democratic Republic of Congo is being cleared to mine for coltan, a metal used in mobile phones and other electronic goods.

People are becoming more aware of the source of their minerals, and more willing to boycott those with dubious origins.

Some progress on the path to “responsible minerals” can be seen in Australian companies’ involvement with the international Responsible Jewellery Council. This is a non-profit organisation working to create a standard that allows consumers to trace metals used in their jewellery from the mine or forest to the store.

Australian zoos are campaigning on coltan. Melbourne Zoo

Australia is also leading the way in managing steel through the Steel Stewardship Forum. The group tries to ensure this important metal meets social and environmental standards and is used in ways that mean it can be used over and over again by many generations of people.

This is a good start. But as a world leader in mining, there is a lot more we could achieve.

Vision 2040 – a new report from UTS – suggests we could lead the world in understanding how to leave the places where we find minerals in as good or better condition than when they were discovered.

But to do so we would have to make the most of the current high prices, and invest the proceeds wisely in greener infrastructure and industries for Australia.

This brings us to the economic part of “responsible minerals”.

Fair trade products such as tea, coffee and chocolate are a part of many Australians’ café and supermarket shopping experience. What might be a bit confronting is the idea that Australia would be a part of the fair trade movement. Are we being exploited for our minerals in the same way a Guatemalan farmer might be exploited for his cocoa crop?

Conflict minerals are boycotted. George Gobet/AAP

We assume that we are powerful enough to make the best deal possible with companies that dig up our minerals. But there is not much evidence available for this point of view.

There is a great deal of talk about the rate of company tax applied to mining companies. But without knowing how much of this is actually paid, it is difficult to see whether it is really enough.

This is even more important when you consider the record prices mineral commodities have sold for in the past 18 months.

With the Mineral Resource Rent Tax coming up in parliament some time soon, it would be useful to have more information about how all the concessions that apply to mining operations stack up. It’s projected revenues of $40bn over 10 years is barely enough to buy us each a coffee a week, let alone guarantee our future. A program such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) is one way that the public could be better informed about who is paying the most for mineral development.

Vision 2040 fosters debate about how to extract long-term benefit from mining; the need for a National Minerals Strategy in Australia and presents ideas for innovations in governance and business models to support our future prosperity.

For the full Vision 2040 report, go here.

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