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The three global trends shaping the mining industry

5 October 2023

Friends, you may know that the FT’s tagline since 2007 has been ‘We live in Financial Times’ which I really like and was very prescient given the Global Financial Crisis a year later.

Rohitesh Dhawan, President and CEO, ICMM (as delivered)

Let me be cheeky and suggest to our friends at the FT that if they want to continue to appear ahead of the curve, now might be the time to consider changing it to ‘We live in Mining Times’, for that may well be the defining feature of our global economy in the years to come. I suppose the FT isn’t going to become the MT anytime soon, but you get my drift.

There are three reasons why the Mining Times are upon us – and these are best understood as three simple questions that the world is asking.

First, how much? This is essentially a question of demand. By now we’ve all heard a thousand different ways of describing the skyrocketing demand for minerals from the energy transition which comes on top of baseline demand from a growing population, so I’d just like to remind us about the simple and basic logic:

To meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accord, we need to replace the energy we get from fossil fuel molecules with electrons that are generated from renewable sources such as solar and wind. And because an electric car can have its own fuel tank but not its own wind turbine, those electrons need to be transported and stored, meaning lots of batteries and new transmission lines. And the best materials for generating, storing, and transporting electricity tend to be metals and minerals. So, decarbonising requires more renewable electrons which in turn need metals to produce, store and distribute them.

This is oversimplified, I know, but the reason for stripping it back to its core essence is that it helps us focus on the uncomplicated but uncomfortable reality: there’s going to be a lot of demand chasing limited supply. Which brings me to the second question on everyone’s mind:

The second question is: how will these metals and minerals be produced? This is essentially a question of supply, and the impact of that supply on people and the planet. Look we can’t have a grown up conversation about this or build trust with society until we honestly and truthfully recognise one simple reality; mining has caused harm to people in the planet in the past, in many cases it is causing harm today, and, if we do nothing to make change at scale, it will cause harm in the future.

Of course, this does not mean that all mining is harmful – far from it. We have so many examples, including many from the 25 companies who are members of ICMM and are in this room today, of mining in harmony with people and nature that show what is possible when we Mine with Principles. Yet, with an estimated 25,000 mining companies globally operating some 30,000 mine sites, we are still far from making responsible mining the norm.

Everyone has a role to play in this but if I can just call out one key ingredient we desperately need, it is this; a smaller number of responsible mining standards which are designed to have impact at scale. The key here is scale – having a handful of mines adopting a theoretically high standard isn’t going to make the difference we need. There are important developments already underway in this regard, and I look forward to sharing more with you soon.

And so the third question that is or should be on our minds is: where from? This is essentially a question of geopolitics. The glass half empty view of this is that securing supplies of critical minerals will exacerbate existing geopolitical tensions and create new ones. The glass half full version is that critical minerals is just a hop, skip and jump upstream of cooperation on climate change, which has proven remarkably resilient and immune to broader geopolitical tensions. Whichever you think is more likely, I think we would do well to learn the lessons from the geopolitics of 5G and semiconductors for what we can expect.

The agenda over the next two days will be about answering the three questions of how much, how, and where from. So let me give you my quick answer to each:

As for how much, the answer ought to be: as much as we need; no more and no less. No more, for that will mean we’ve under-utilised the potential of the circular economy, and no less for that could mean that the shortage of minerals could hold back the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

When it comes to how, the answer must be: responsibly, or not at all. When it comes to critical minerals, the ends do not automatically justify all means, so establishing a minimum globally applied bar for responsible mining practices is essential.

And as for where from, the answer should be: from here, there but not everywhere. On-shoring, near-shoring, friend-shoring, and I-don’t-like-you-but-I’ll-still-need-to-work-with-you-shoring all need to be part of the supply mix for any country – such will be the need to secure supplies. There will also need to be no-go areas, such as World Heritage Sites and other areas of extraordinary natural or cultural significance.

The Financial Times of the last 15 years were exciting but did not set the world on a sustainable path. The Mining Times could fix that if we get the answer to the three questions right.

Thank you.