Live Chat

In the pursuit of a green economy, the conversation often circles around renewable energy, electric vehicles, and cutting-edge technology. However, an element frequently overlooked is the essential role of mining, particularly for critical minerals. These minerals, including lithium, tin, tungsten, cobalt and rare earth elements are indispensable for the production of batteries, wind turbines, and solar panels. 

The UK’s ambitious green targets must embrace sustainable mining practices to secure vital resources. Contrary to popular belief, mining does not have to be a dirty word. With the right approaches, mining can be both environmentally responsible and economically beneficial.

Powering Clean Tech

Critical minerals are the backbone of modern technology and the green economy. As an example, lithium and cobalt are key components in the batteries that power electric vehicles and store renewable energy. With the drive towards ending the production of vehicles with internal combustion engines in place of EVs, the potential here is huge. 

Also, a number of earth elements are crucial for the production of wind turbines and high-efficiency solar panels. In one 3MW wind turbine, it is estimated that on average they can contain up to 2 tons of rare earth metals. This is in addition to 5 tons of copper, 3 tons of aluminium, 335 tons of steel and a staggering 1,200 tons of concrete. 

All of these materials at some point in their life have had to be mined out of the ground. If we consider something closer to home, maybe sitting on your desk or in your pocket as you are reading this, these minerals are also essential for the production of smartphones..

As the demand for green technologies grows, so does the need for mineral extraction. The UK’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions and achieving net-zero by 2050 underscores the urgency of developing a reliable and sustainable supply chain for these resources.

Positive Environmental Impacts

Considering environmental protection – often used as a counter argument against mining, sustainable mining practices can prioritise the minimization of environmental impact. This can come from land reclamation, where ex-mining sites are returned to a natural or economically usable state. In St Austell, Cornwall, a number of the former China Clay workings have now been landscaped with trees planted to encourage biodiversity and public access given to certain parts to encourage outdoor pursuits. And there are many more examples of regenerative landscapes from past works across the country. 

Implementing water management strategies can prevent water pollution and manage the responsible use of water in the mining industry. The Wheal Jane Mine Water Treatment Plant (MWTP) is a project in Cornwall overseen by The Coal Authority, and following a contract being awarded in 2021, is operated and maintained by John F Hunt Regeneration. 

The Wheal Jane MWTP which is operational 24/7 a day, 365 days per year, was built after a catastrophic release of contaminated water in 1992, just a year after the mine was closed and its pumps turned off. An adit suffered a collapse and more than 50 million litres of contaminated, acidic mine water discharged into the Carnon River and the Fal Estuary. This innovative solution at Wheal Jane now ensures that an event like this does not happen again.

Cornwall also boasts a new, recently completed water treatment plant, which can now be seen on the South Crofty Mine site. The mine is set to be re-opened under the management of Cornish Metals in the coming years and this treatment facility forms part of their commitment to manage and safeguard the environment. A much welcomed improvement compared to the bygone days contaminated mine water leaching into the nearby Red River. Aptly named due to the iron solids and heavy metal contamination that stains the banks of the river even to this day.

The advancements in mining technology have skyrocketed in recent years and can significantly reduce the environmental footprint of mining activities. The introduction in some mines of electric or hybrid equipment not only helps reduce emissions from mining machinery but also makes working below ground a far more sustainable job and reduces risks of harm to health to the miners working there. Cast your mind back to coal power steam engines and gas lamps to full electric fleets of automated mine vehicles.

Better Local Engagement

It is paramount that mine owners today are transparent and upfront with the community about their intentions. Mining operations should actively involve local communities, ensuring that their voices are heard and their concerns addressed. This may include engaging with local populations and stakeholders to gain social licence to operate their mine site. Listening to their concerns and seeing if their proposals may have un-considered impacts on locals in that area. 

Many communities can benefit from mining activities through job creation and infrastructure development. That’s not to say it is all positive and I am certainly not naive to the potential drawbacks of large scale industrial activities. There are potential noise implications, additional traffic to consider as well as visual impacts depending on how you feel about seeing a metal headframe complete with sheave wheels and gallows out of your window. 

But this is personal and certainly for some will bring back a sense of pride in the community knowing once again that mining will play a role in local identity.

I believe the UK is still in a unique position to help lead the way in sustainable mining practices. With a rich history of mining and a strong commitment to environmental stewardship, wecan help develop and implement robust regulations that enforce sustainable mining practices. We have the opportunity, the schools and the skills to support and develop new, groundbreaking research into new mining technologies that could reduce environmental impact and that is extremely exciting.

Recognising the Benefits

There are two sides to every argument and this is no exception. Mining does have something of a dark legacy. but we have the benefit of monitoring the environmental, social and human-right implications of mining domestically, perhaps more so than other mining regions across the globe..

NIMBY-ism remains a powerful force and even those advocating greener living will still be less supportive of a geothermal plant or lithium extraction facility being built in their village.. Even if the same quantity of lithium is produced elsewhere in the globe and results in greater greenhouse gas emissions, transportation costs and ecological destruction, then “out of sight, out of mind” plays a huge factor, with some being willing to turn a blind eye. 

If we were to mine for these materials on home turf, we can do so in a responsible and tightly governed way. Of course, the UK isn’t blessed with all the minerals we need and so we must import to some degree, but we are lucky to live on such a geologically rich island that hosts a plethora of natural resources.

As the world transitions to a green economy, the demand for critical minerals will only increase. So my question to you is this, should the UK embrace sustainable mining practices to ensure a steady supply of these essential resources while protecting the environment and benefiting local communities? In my eyes, by redefining mining through the lens of sustainability, the UK can demonstrate that mining is not inherently a dirty word but a crucial component of our green future.