Environmental stewardship and the mining sector – powering a greener future

By | 2021-06-09T14:06:44+00:00 June 9th, 2021|

By Advocate Tsheko Ratsheko, Group Manager of Environment, Mining Licences, and Sustainability at ‎Exxaro Resources

Advocate Tsheko Ratsheko, Group Manager of Environment, Mining Licences, and Sustainability at ‎Exxaro Resources. Photo by Exxaro

Advocate Tsheko Ratsheko, Group Manager of Environment, Mining Licences, and Sustainability at ‎Exxaro Resources. Photo by Exxaro

We and our planet are in an environmental crisis. Climate change, population growth, pollution, poverty, and an increasing demand for natural resources which are damaging to our natural ecosystems, are some of the most significant challenges we must overcome.

The impact of human industry on our atmosphere, land, water, and biodiversity is not only visible today but is also increasing over time. But with these pressing challenges also come unique opportunities for change. Reducing the environmental impact of the mining industry has become more than an ethical or regulatory imperative; it can also be a viable business model that capitalises on resource efficiency to achieve long-term sustainability and business resilience.

World Environment Day gives us the chance to raise awareness and participate in conversations about our environment. Exxaro is one of South Africa’s largest coal mining companies but also one of the first significant investors in renewable energy solutions. Protecting our ecosystems and transitioning towards cleaner, renewable energy has long been a core strategic objective for Exxaro.

The importance of environmental stewardship

Responsible environmental stewardship is about protecting and preserving natural resources for the greater good of all our stakeholders. Water scarcity, air pollution, biodiversity threats, hazardous waste, and climate change all pose significant environmental and financial risks that we need to manage while delivering on other business objectives. Without a clear environmental strategy in mind, it is not possible for the business to be able to respond effectively to the emergent systemic shocks and be sustainable. Given our dependence on natural resources and systems for human sustainability, an inconsiderate approach to environmental stewardship will undermine much-needed development and human progress.

Since 2006, we have developed group-wide environmental management standards which are reviewed annually and guided by reference to global instruments. In the next 10 years, we plan to increase our efforts and focus on environmental stewardship by reducing our greenhouse gases through investing in self-generated renewable electricity and alternative fuels, ensuring water availability through efficiency and recycling efforts, managing the potential effects of severe weather events (such as heatwaves) through best practice adaptive methods and waste management through increased recycling considerations.

Transitioning to a low-carbon future

Fossil fuels are becoming a less acceptable energy source and global energy generation is moving towards renewable energy, hence Exxaro has made the strategic decision not to seek further growth in thermal coal. As the largest supplier of coal to Eskom, however, our coal portfolio remains a valuable natural resource that must be extracted optimally and responsibly to continue providing energy security, which will support economic growth and social development in South Africa. An early maximisation of the value of our coal assets will enable our transition to low-carbon alternatives while minimising the social impact on employees and communities that depend on the coal economy and enabling a Just Transition to a low-carbon economy.

In 2009, we made our first significant investment in renewable energy with the Tsitsikamma Community Wind Farm, providing 95 megawatts of clean, zero-carbon energy into the national power grid. In 2012, we partnered with the Tata Power Company to form Cennergi and began our second renewable energy project: the Amakhala Emoyeni Wind Farm. In 2019, we further bolstered our renewable energy portfolio by acquiring the remaining 50% share of Cennergi.

With these investments, we have firmly established ourselves as a leader in green energy while continuing to deliver high-quality coal to our existing clients. Building our renewable energy portfolio not only gives us long-term resilience to climate-related risks but also opens up alternative economic activities.

Full carbon disclosure

Because we currently still rely on fossil fuel as our primary energy resource in South Africa, managing our emissions remains a priority. South Africa has arguably set the most aggressive emissions target of any developing country, aiming to reduce emissions by 34% by 2020 and 42% by 2025. Global leaders are meeting in Glasgow in November 2021 at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), and each member party (including South Africa) must present revised commitments on their carbon emission targets. If anything good has come from the pandemic, lockdown periods have shown that these targets can be met, albeit through severe restrictions on economic activity.

Exxaro measures manage and report energy and carbon data in terms of the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol, which provides a standard measurement platform to compare emissions internationally and locally. During 2020, we reported a 9% decrease in carbon intensity and a 7% reduction in electricity intensity due to energy efficiency projects at our business units.

The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), a UK-based organisation that oversees a global environmental disclosure system, provides valuable insights into corporate strategies for environmental stewardship. The system also helps to channel investment to companies adhering to sustainable carbon and emissions management. It also provides our environmental reporting with a central data repository that is audited and assured externally every year. That level of transparency in environmental reporting is crucial, as it holds organisations liable for their emissions.

Water, waste, and air

Environmental stewardship must also extend beyond carbon considerations. Water is a strategic natural resource for South Africa and our business, which is why we have committed to responsible and sustainable water use through efficient reuse and recycling,

Our waste management policy is also critical to maintaining our licence to operate. We have moved from a cradle-to-grave philosophy to a more circular, cradle-to-cradle approach. We see waste as a business opportunity and have developed cost and benefits analyses of our hazardous waste stream. Using digital systems to track and monitor sources of our hazardous waste, we are also able to eliminate or reuse waste at the source.

Mining activities such as drilling, blasting, crushing, transportation, materials handling, and storing generate dust. We therefore regularly improve our mitigation measures to reduce the impact of these on the surrounding atmosphere, such as avoiding blasts during high wind conditions, applying chemical dust suppressants, or using vegetation on topsoil stockpiles.

During 2020, we focused on going beyond compliance and implemented our reviewed air quality management system at various business units. The dust fallout rate at most of our operations complied with the regulated residential and non-residential limits, largely due to these dust suppression measures.

Preserving biodiversity is critical

Biodiversity loss has been identified as being at significant risk in the context of climate change. Considering this, we have been implementing several projects to ensure that our mines coexist in harmony with the natural environment. These include an Alien Invader Eradication Programme, a Wetland Rehabilitation Project, and Biodiversity Relocation Programmes.

These initiatives and programmes aim to protect indigenous flora and fauna species and support local ecosystems beyond the areas Exxaro operates in. We have committed to exceeding our biodiversity goals so that both current and future generations can enjoy a clean and flourishing natural environment.

Powering a greener future

There is a common misconception that the mining sector cannot coexist with environmental stewardship but Exxaro has proven otherwise. Guided by environmental sustainability practices and our vision “Resources Powering a Clean World’ to direct our business strategies, we have strengthened our organisational resilience while protecting the future of our environment. These are stewardship practices will transfer to future mining opportunities for sustainable growth.

Over the years, we have developed a comprehensive response for climate change that will continue to reap benefits for our company, our communities, and the environment for years to come.