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Three days of protests against a major mining conference in Australia have highlighted the resource sector’s role in achieving a low-carbon future was misunderstood, according to an economic geologist based in the United States.

In an AusIMM webinar, Dr Simon Jowitt, from the Department of Geoscience at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, outlined the role mining would play in the transition to a low CO2 future.

But he said industry opponents such as those who protested against the International Mining and Resources Conference in Melbourne in late 2019 showed the lack of understanding of mining’s contribution to hitting climate change targets.

“The vast majority of people, even in countries that are reliant on mining like Australia, (think) mining is problematic, is old and we don’t need it anymore,” Dr Jowitt said.

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“The bottom line is if you want to do anything meaningful about climate change, you’re going to need more mining, you’re going to need to mine more metals and minerals.

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“This creates questions, problems and opportunities about where we are going to find the metals and minerals.

“We need to refine and improve our understanding of geological processes for mineral deposits, to increase the efficiency and efficacy of mining in terms of recovery and energy use and think about the impact this increase in metal extraction will have — the environmental, social and governmental challenges.”

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Dr Jowitt used Britain’s pledge for almost all cars and vans to be zero emission by 2050 as an example of the magnitude of the challenge facing the mining industry to find and supply the metals and minerals required.

“To do that will require nearly two times the total annual cobalt production, nearly the entire production of neodymium, at least half the world’s copper,” Dr Jowitt said. “This is just the vehicles, not the infrastructure.

“Then there is the electricity generation to charge all these car miles — and the UK isn’t the biggest country in the world. What about India, China, Brazil, the US? All of these countries are going to go through the same transition.”

The average annual demand of the vast majority of minerals will double in response to efforts to hit climate change targets.

Dave Lawie, Chief Geoscientist at leading global mining-tech company IMDEX, agreed with Dr Jowitt’s assessment that many of the minerals and metals required for a decarbonised future are facing a supply crunch — starting with copper.

“None of this will happen without copper and the fact is the grades are decreasing, new resources are proving hard to find and the mines that are operating are facing increased environmental, social and governance issues,” Dr Lawie said.

“Billions of dollars have already been allocated globally to improve battery technology and production, electric vehicle production, and storage and charging infrastructure, but where are the key metals and minerals coming from? There are limited supplies to meet increasing demand.”

“Mining companies in a decarbonised future will have to be adept at finding and supplying these metals from increasingly remote and challenging environments.

“The difference between success and failure, between an economic and uneconomic deposit, will be greater ore body knowledge, which will deliver improved processing intensity, less waste, less tailings, less water use, and greater overall efficiencies.

“Mining companies able to access reliable data as early as possible at each step of the mining value chain from exploration and drilling, to planning and production, will be in the best position to deliver the metals the world will demand.”

Dr Lawie said mining would also have to contend with resource nationalism and the fragmentation of supply chains as countries sought to ensure supplies of metals and minerals such as copper, nickel, lithium, cobalt, and critical minerals.