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Environmental stewardship and mining: Powering a greener future

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, celebrated each year on 5 June, gives us the chance to raise awareness and participate in conversations about our environment. As one of South Africa’s largest coal mining companies protecting our ecosystems and transitioning towards cleaner, renewable energy has long been a core strategic objective for Exxaro.

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The importance of environmental stewardship

By Advocate Tsheko Ratsheko, group manager of environment, mining licences, and sustainability at ‎Exxaro Resources

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, Exxaro has developed group-wide environmental management standards which are reviewed annually and guided by reference to global instruments. In the next 10 years, the company plans to increase its efforts and focus on environmental stewardship by reducing its 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.

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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, Exxaro made its 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, the company partnered with the Tata Power Company to form Cennergi and began its second renewable energy project: the Amakhala Emoyeni Wind Farm. In 2019, it further bolstered its renewable energy portfolio by acquiring the remaining 50% share of Cennergi.

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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, the company reported a 9% decrease in carbon intensity and a 7% reduction in electricity intensity due to energy efficiency projects at its 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.

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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 Exxaro has committed to responsible and sustainable water use through efficient reuse and recycling,

The company’s waste management policy is also critical to maintaining its licence to operate. Exxaro has moved from a cradle-to-grave philosophy to a more circular, cradle-to-cradle approach. Exxaro sees waste as a business opportunity and have developed cost and benefits analyses of our hazardous waste stream. By using digital systems to track and monitor sources of hazardous waste, the company is also able to eliminate or reuse waste at the source.

Mining activities such as drilling, blasting, crushing, transportation, materials handling, and storing generate dust. Exxaro therefore regularly improves its 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, the company focused on going beyond compliance and implemented its reviewed air quality management system at various business units. The dust fallout rate at most of the company’s operations complied with the regulated residential and non-residential limits, largely due to these dust suppression measures.

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Preserving biodiversity is critical

Biodiversity loss has been identified as being at significant risk in the context of climate change. Considering this, Exxaro has been implementing several projects to ensure that its 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.

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 its vision “Resources Powering a Clean World’ to direct its business strategies, the company has strengthened its organisational resilience while protecting the future of the environment. These are stewardship practices that will transfer to future mining opportunities for sustainable growth.