Transparency on greenhouse gas emissions from mining to enable climate change mitigation

Abstract

The climate change impacts of mining are often not fully accounted for, although the environmental impact of mineral extraction more generally is widely studied. Copper mining can serve as a case study to analyse the measurable pathways by which mining contributes to climate change through direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions. For example, mining, processing and transportation require fuel and electricity, and the decomposition of carbonate minerals, employed to reduce environmental impacts, also releases carbon dioxide. Overall, we estimate that greenhouse gas emissions associated with primary mineral and metal production was equivalent to approximately 10% of the total global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. For copper mining, fuel consumption increased by 130% and electricity consumption increased by 32% per unit of mined copper in Chile from 2001 to 2017, largely due to decreasing ore grade. This trend of increasing energy demand to produce the same quantity of some metals compounds the problems of increased metal demand due to the pressures of new technologies and increasing population. For green technologies to be implemented effectively, it is necessary that the mining industry and regulators accurately and transparently account for greenhouse gas emissions to implement mitigation strategies.

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Fig. 1: Potential sources and sinks of GHG emissions associated with the primary copper supply chain.
Fig. 2: Estimated GHG emissions associated with primary mineral and metal production in 2018, allocated to major elements.
Fig. 3: Pathways for climate change impact mitigation in mining.

Data availability

The authors declare that the data supporting the findings of this study are available within the article and its supplementary information files.

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge the financial support secured by J.-W. Ahn through her grant on the National Strategic Project-Carbon Upcycling of the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF) funded by the Ministry of Science and ICT (MSIT), the Ministry of Environment (ME) and the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MOTIE) (2017M3D8A2084752), and the Sustainable Minerals Institute, University of Queensland for funding for this study. We also thank P. Nuss for providing the data used to recalculate the contribution of life-cycle stages to global warming potential that is shown in the Supplementary Information.

Author information

M.A., S.H.A. and M.E. conceived the study. S.A.N. synthesized data from multiple sources and incorporated that into M.A.’s schematic model of impacts. M.A., S.H.A. and S.A.N. wrote the final narrative of the article.

Correspondence to Saleem H. Ali.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Primary Handling Editor: Rebecca Neely

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1. Estimated greenhouse gas emissions of primary mined material production in 2018.

Estimated greenhouse gas emissions of primary mined material production in 2018. Excludes energy carriers (coal, uranium) and mineral aggregates. Estimated based upon data from Nuss and Eckelman (2014)58 and 2018 production data derived from U.S. Geological Survey (2019)59 and the British Geological Survey60. 95% confidence intervals are shown. See notes in electronic supplementary Table S1 for derivation of the “Total” confidence interval.

Extended Data Fig. 2. Declining ore grades and increasing energy requirements in the Chilean copper sector.

Declining ore grades and increasing energy requirements in the Chilean copper sector. Data sourced from the Chilean Copper Commission61,62.

Extended Data Fig. 3. Energy and greenhouse gas intensity of individual stages of copper production in Chile overtime.

Energy and greenhouse gas intensity of individual stages of copper production in Chile overtime. Data sourced from the Chilean Copper Commission61,62. Note the difference in y-axis scale between direct and indirect emissions intensity.

Extended Data Fig. 4. Scope 1 (direct, on-site) and scope 2 (indirect, electricity generation) greenhouse gas emissions associated with copper mines.

Scope 1 (direct, on-site) and scope 2 (indirect, electricity generation) greenhouse gas emissions associated with copper mines. Error bars show the minimum and maximum annual greenhouse gas emissions from each mine. Data updated from Northey et al. (2013)3 to increase industry coverage. Economic allocation updated to account for copper concentrate and anode treatment costs (TC) and refining costs (RC).

Supplementary information

Supplementary Table 1

Estimated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with the 2018 production of primary materials derived from mining, excluding energy carriers (coal and uranium) and mineral aggregates.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Statistics for the scope 1 and scope 2 greenhouse gas emissions intensity of Chilean copper production in 2017 and 2009, sourced from the Chilean Copper Commission (Comision Chilena del Cobre)61,62.

Source Data Fig. 2

Estimated greenhouse gas emissions associated with production of materials containing individual elements in 2018, derived from unit emissions data provided by Nuss and Eckelman58 and production data from the US Geological Survey59 and the British Geological Survey60.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 1

Estimated contribution of life-cycle stage to annual greenhouse gas emissions associated with individual elements, derived from unit emissions data provided by Nuss and Eckelman58 and production data from the US Geological Survey59 and the British Geological Survey60.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 2

Statistics for the energy use intensity of Chilean copper production processes from 2001 to 2017, sourced from the Chilean Copper Commission (Comision Chilena del Cobre)61,62.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 3

Statistics for the energy use intensity, greenhouse gas emission intensity and ore grades of Chilean copper production processes from 1995 to 2017, sourced from the Chilean Copper Commission (Comision Chilena del Cobre)61,62.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 4

Average annual scope 1 and scope 2 greenhouse gas emissions, and annual average production rates of individual copper mines, derived from data collected by Northey et al.3 with some updates.

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Azadi, M., Northey, S.A., Ali, S.H. et al. Transparency on greenhouse gas emissions from mining to enable climate change mitigation. Nat. Geosci. 13, 100–104 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-020-0531-3

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