The UK is an important stakeholder in the modern mining industry. Although the UK production of metals is low, many of the world’s largest mining companies are headquartered in the UK, investors and markets in the UK are a significant source of finance for the industry, and the London Metal Exchange is the largest market for the trade of metals. The oversight of mining, and the supply of mined materials (including metals and finished products that contain them) falls across several government departments, including DEFRA, BEIS, DIT and FCDO. The Government is drafting a UK Critical Minerals Strategy in 2022 as part of its Net Zero Strategy. The UK imports ~40 million tonnes of metal year from a diverse global supply chain, that includes the EU (10%), China (12%) and South Africa (6%). Trade and procurement are important mechanisms for the UK to secure responsible supplies of metals.  

The Earth is likely to have sufficient metal ore deposits to meet projected demand over coming decades. However, there are concerns about the reliability of metal supplies. There is a general decline in the quality of ore deposits, in terms of the concentration of metals they contain, and an increase in the economic, environmental and social costs of mining them. Geopolitical threats to international supply chains, and long time frames (often a decade or more) in opening new mines means that metal supply could fail to meet rapidly changing demand. Ore deposits may occur in areas where mining would have unacceptable impacts on biodiversity, existing land use, and communities.

Although some individual mines are very large, overall less than 0.02% of the Earth’s surface is used for mining (active and recently active mines). However, the actual area used for mining is only part of a mine’s true ‘footprint’, as the  arrival of mining in wilderness areas allows other industries to follow, in some cases leading to wide-scale landscape change and biodiversity loss. For example, mining is responsible for around 7% of annual forest loss in developing countries. Air pollution, including acid rain, may have long distance, transnational impacts on biodiversity and forests.

Mining and mineral processing consume large volumes of water, including in arid regions. The discharge of water from mine sites can result in serious contamination of waterways. The industry uses over 8% of the world’s total energy each year to produce metals, and contributes to 10% of the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Improper storage of mine waste has resulted in humanitarian and ecological disasters.

Mining has a complex relationship with communities, culture and society in the countries in which it operates. Mining can bring employment, enhance services and infrastructure, and draw investment to the country. However, it is recognised as having the potential to create unequal societies, disproportionately affecting women, indigenous people and other marginalised groups. Mining operations can negatively impact on culture and heritage sites.

Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) can successfully support individuals to move out of poverty, although some activity – including illegal or illicit ASM – contributes to criminality, human rights abuses including child labour and modern slavery, money laundering, and the financing of wars. In the absence of effective governance, commercial, large-scale mining operations may also lead to criminality and human rights abuses. The value of mining to investors, governments and associated businesses means that petty and grand corruption surrounds mining. The UK has anti-corruption laws with overseas reach, and continues to work with partner countries to combat corruption.

A wider suite of voluntary corporate sustainability reporting and certification schemes for environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria have emerged in the last fifteen years, and are primarily to allow the commercial mining sector to demonstrate to investors that they are mining responsibly. The UK Government has given weight to some of these schemes, by enshrining participation for large companies in law – for example, beginning in 2022 over 1300 UK-based companies, including multinational miners, will need to disclose climate-related financial information on a mandatory basis – in line with the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD).  As much of the corporate ESG certification relates to the relationship between miners and shareholders or banks, private and state-owned companies (including those of China for example), may not be subject to the same scrutiny.Mines are governed by laws in the host countries. There is no global consensus on what should be permissible, and where, meaning that there is a very uneven legal landscape. However, there are a few areas in which international regulations place limits on the mining industry, particularly in terms of raising finance or accessing markets to sell products. These regulations have focused on fraud during initial financing, and human rights and criminality in supply chains, particularly for metals with significant artisanal production. The USA and EU both have legislation around conflict minerals; Northern Ireland is compliant with the EU regulations, and the FCDO expects the rest of the UK to align with the EU regulations and the OECD guidance from which they are derived.

Recycling rates for many metals are low, and even if increased will not meet overall demand. For example, more than 50% of copper in end-of-life products is recycled, but this meets less than 25% of overall copper demand. Our supply of metals remains dependent on mining. Reducing the consumption of metal through more efficient use, and offsetting more demand with recycling and reuse, will improve the overall sustainability of metal use.The mining industry is taking steps to improve its environmental and social performance. However, there are gaps in the transparency of reporting. The aggregation of data to company-level in sustainability reporting limits scrutiny, some metrics are under-reported, there is a lack of transparency and consistency on measurement methodologies. Innovation and best practice can help to mitigate some of the negative environmental and social impacts of mining, but the propagation across the industry is slow due to high capital costs, and competitive rather than collaborative efforts.

Mining remains vital to the supply of metals, and will underpin a transition to more sustainable, low carbon energy and infrastructure. Better stewardship of metal resources, and more responsible mining operations can help to minimise the negative impacts on the environment and communities, and improve the overall sustainability of metal use. Although the UK mines little itself, it is home to some of the mining sector’s largest companies, investors and markets, and Government policy has considerable influence on corporate transparency, environmental performance, and good governance.

Acknowledgements

This POSTbrief was based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and was externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

Prof Morgan Bazilian, Colorado School of Mines

Karina Berg, WWF

Edward Bickham

Andrew Bloodworth, British Geological Survey

Rose Clarke, Satarla

Aidan Davy, ICMM*^

Jonathan Dunn, Anglo American

Prof Hylke Glass, Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter*

Dr Sarah Gordon, Satarla*

Holger Grundel, Levin Sources

Rowan Halkes, Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter*

Dr Georgie Hallett, LME

Franziska Haupt, Climate Focus Berlin GmbH

Prof Karen Hudson-Edwards, Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter

Tobias Kind-Rieper, WWF

Moritz Kramer, WWF

Jordy Lee, Colorado School of Mines

Dr Pamela Lesser, University of Lapland

Estelle Levin-Nally, Levin Sources*

Ros Lund, DIT

Paul Lusty, British Geological Survey

Michael Magyar, USGS

Adam Matthews, Church of England

Dr Nedal Nassar, USGS

Aldo Pennini, Satarla

Dr Evi Petavratzi, British Geological Survey

Darryn Quayle, DIT

Christopher Reeves, Satarla

Jon Samuel, Anglo American

Mark Smith, DIT

Prof Benjamin Sovacool, University of Sussex*

Prof John Thompson, PetraScience

Prof Mark Tibbett, University of Reading

Prof Michael Tost, University of Leoben*

Prof Frances Wall, Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter*

*denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing 

^ICMM feedback was limited to correcting factual inaccuracies


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