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Tomorrow global leaders will collaborate on trends in mining, investment, and innovation towards a sustainable future at the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) at the ICC Sydney.

The most pressing challenges and opportunities facing the sector’s entire value chain will be explored during the three-day forum with leading experts in their fields sharing their valuable knowledge, experiences, and insights with a record number of delegates from 108 countries. 

Ahead of the conference opening, industry specialists share their take on the trends that will be collaborated on at Australia’s largest and most significant mining conference and expo.

NET ZERO MINING

Decarbonisation is arguably the biggest challenge facing the industry right now, which has historically been heavily reliant on fossil fuels not only as a resource, but also as a key fuel supporting much of its operations.

Given the ever-growing awareness around Greenhouse Gas emissions and climate change, Warm Springs Consulting Managing Partner Amber Bieg says mining companies and other emitter will likely only face more scrutiny until decarbonisation really kicks into gear.

“As always, money talks; while regulatory bodies may move slowly in their efforts to curb emissions, shareholders are not as patient. If a move toward more sustainable operations can help ease public pressure, build trust, reduce scrutiny and, in turn, improve the bottom line, shareholders will demand it. Investors are placing pressure on mining companies to take responsibility.

With the rise of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) policies as a key focus within a majority of businesses around the world, the entire mining value chain is working to change. 

Ms. Bieg adds, “It’s not just the largest mining companies that are taking action. According to a 2020 White & Case survey of mining sector companies, over 26% of respondents said ESG policies will be the main priority for the mining sector, and over 12% said climate change response would be the top priority.

“When combined, ESG and climate change responses emerge as the top priorities for mining companies. This makes sense given the mining sector’s unique climate change vulnerability from both a financial standpoint, stakeholder concern, and physical infrastructure risk.”

MINE REPURPOSING & REHABILITATION

In line with their commitment to sustainability, mining and resources operators are now looking years - sometimes decades - into the future, towards the rehabilitation or repurposing of their mine sites before they have even broken ground. 

It’s a vital process according to Planning and Environment Specialist and MinterEllison Partner Simon Ball, who says these sites can take many forms and have already been used to grow crops, create new bodies of water an even house underground scientific research centres.

He says, “Repurposing is critical because it defines the legacy left by an organisation that has usually operated in an area for many years, even decades. When done well, repurposing provides an opportunity for that legacy to be positive for the local communities and other stakeholders, whether that be in the form of social benefits, such as providing lakes for recreational activities, or economically productive land uses like agriculture or pumped hydro.”

Mr. Ball notes the incredibly positive and meaningful impact these sites can have if planned correctly, with stakeholder and community engagement in mind. 

“A successful re-purposing begins by considering and planning for sustainable post-mining land uses from the earliest stages of mine planning. It is also an iterative activity that continues throughout the mining lifecycle, adapting as further information, for example about community expectations, is gathered. Another key step in facilitating a successful repurposing is to engage early with the full range of stakeholders to gain their input as part of a thorough consultation process about post-mining land use,” he says.

ELECTRIFICATION

One of the most talked about trends in mining is key to solving these challenges that are facing a sector at an unprecedented cross-roads.

Chair of Austmine, Dallas Wilkinson, says he sees the most exciting potential around electrification, with increasingly sophisticated technologies leading to incredible advances and innovations across the value chain.

“We’re seeing a one in 100-year opportunity as an industry right now to make a change, and when coupled with the data aspects that leads us into AI and that leads us into ways of doing things differently with automation, robotics and digitisation as well as decarbonisation. So electrification is almost a trigger point for other trends,” Mr. Wilkinson says. 

“It brings with it an opportunity to influence the future for many, many generations. In my view, it's really a pivot point for us. It's going from classic diesel type situations into electrification. It's going from almost no governance to full on social governance and decarbonisation is driving that as we know it.”

And the journey towards electrification, and the innovations that come with it, is being sped up by cross-industry collaboration with once siloed sectors now working together on technological advancements.

Mr Wilkinson says “We’re seeing an exciting intersection of lot of different technologies now coming together. You're seeing organisations in the METS sector working across mining, military, space and agriculture as well, all utilizing the same sort of advances in technology to the advantage of all of those industries.”

INVESTMENT IN FUTURE FACING & CRITICAL MINERALS

Much of that technology is leading to more sustainable operations, with mining increasing significantly to source enough future facing and critical minerals needed for a greener future. 

This has seen many investors and businesses pivot away from the likes of coal - a necessary energy source right now but unlikely to be a long-term fixture. 

IMARC Conference Director Sherene Asnasyous has worked closely with businesses across the entire mining value chain for several years and says there’s been a significant shift in conversation ahead of this year’s forum compared with previous events.

“Everyone in the industry knows that investment in and the use of coal isn’t going to go away overnight. It's not something you just switch on and off. I think the question is how do you balance that shift from coal to future facing and critical minerals.”

Ms. Asnasyous says the increased focus on future facing and critical minerals was a key topic of conversation at the SW Pre-IMARC Energy & Resources Industry Lunch.

“The key takeaway was the most lucrative investment from a short-term perspective is not necessarily where money's going to come from in the long term, so investors are having to pivot and invest in future projects that are going to be long-term and sustainable – not only in terms of the types of materials being mined, but also the innovative environmental strategies being used to operate mine sites, transport minerals and get the commodities around the world.”

IMARC presents a key opportunity for investors to connect with businesses making meaningful changes to their operations but many more conversations and collaborations are required.

“These intentions, strategies and commitments are all well and good, but they can't happen in silo. There must be collaboration across the industry and with the government, mining communities and investors coming together to address all of the challenges facing the sector.”

WORKFORCE & CULTURE

None of these challenges can be properly addressed without a skilled and sustained workforce employed right across the mining value chain – an issue that has been threatening to cripple the sector since before the pandemic struck.

PWC’s National Mining Leader Debbie Smith points to a lack of new graduates combined with a major increase in competitive industries as a key reason for the shortage. 

“If you looked at the number of mining engineers that were graduating from Australian universities 10 years ago, there was approximately 250. If you looked at how many mining engineers graduated in 2020 - it was 100.

“You’ve also had a huge investment in infrastructure and so a lot of those skills that are required in in big building projects are the same skills that you also need at the mine sites. So you've got some of those workers who now have a choice about whether they're out at a mine site, or working on a construction project in a metropolitan area.”

Ms. Smith says the mining industry needs to come up with more creative solutions to address this crisis, one of which could involve reconsidering the effectiveness of FIFO mining sites.

“During COVID, the concept of everything having to be on-site has been challenged. How much can be done within regional hubs or from people's homes was really challenged and it was certainly found that in order to protect those essential workers on-site, more people were forced to work remotely,” she says.

“I do think that they're going to have to look at whether FIFO is an attractive proposition going forward, or whether you have to look more to investment in vibrant regional towns and communities that facilitate not just the workers but their families as well.”

“There is also a role the government needs to play in working with the industry to ensure they are properly investing in regional mining communities. Having communities that are solely reliant on single mine operations and not diversified is an opportunity to think through." 

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