The route to consolidate Chile as a green mining leader

For over a year, 150 experts from academia, civil society organizations, and the public and private sectors worked on visualizing the future of the mining industry in Chile, with a clear conclusion: mining will be green, or it won’t be.

A group of 150 representatives from the academic world, NGOs, and the private and public sectors met under the coordination of CESCO and the Senate Future Challenges Committee to outline the future of the Chilean mining industry and ensure that it consolidates itself as the most sustainable in the world. This route has been embodied in the document “Chile: Leader in green mining,” which will be launched on November 11 at the Ex-Congress.

The work was organized into five axes, which gave rise to 5 working groups: 1. Decarbonization and access to markets; 2. Water resources and adaptation to climate change; 3. Biodiversity; 4. Concentrates processing, secondary mining, recycling, and environmental liabilities; and 5. Financing strategic projects and promoting innovation, a group that has been transversal in developing the other groups.

CESCO spoke with Marcela Angulo, director of the University of Concepción’s Santiago campus and a Cesco member. As the coordinator of group 5, Financing strategic projects and promoting innovation, she analyzes the initiative’s scope and how it could develop in the future.

-For context, how was generated this initiative promoted by the Senate?

The Future Challenges Commission of the Senate invited a group from the scientific and technological world to imagine a process of transformation of mining in Chile. That process, consistent with the noble role that minerals such as copper or lithium will play in the global energy transition, would allow mining to evolve towards a more environmentally sustainable industry, more harmonious with the territories where it is inserted and more intensive in knowledge, taking advantage of the opportunity to be an innovation platform that positions Chile as a protagonist in the development of solutions for decarbonization and sustainability.

In this way, coordinated by CESCO, a process of inviting different specialists from academia and industry who made up the more than 150 members of the working groups began.

In this way, coordinated by CESCO, a process of inviting different specialists from academia and industry who made up the more than 150 members of the working groups began.

The group defined the concept of “green mining,” which is understood as a convention that has the purpose of ensuring that we all have a common understanding, based on seven attributes: low in emissions, efficient in energy use, minimizes waste, and promotes the circular economy; efficient with the use of water and that reduces the impact on ecosystems, which protects and regenerates biodiversity, intensive in knowledge and promoter of productive chains, and finally, that is inserted and develops the territories where it.

-What axes make up this work, and what are its main goals?

Each axis set several goals, some from the most straightforward, such as improving the quality of environmental information for decision-making or reporting and traceability schemes, to more complex ones, such as emission reduction, carbon neutrality, or addressing historical ecological liabilities. I highlight some of them.

In the Decarbonization axis, it is proposed to have copper production traceable by 70% by 2025 and 100% by 2030, reduce the intensity of emissions by 50% by 2030 in large-scale mining, and achieve carbon neutrality in all mining by 2050; Likewise, it is proposed to progressively increase the participation of local companies in the development of technological solutions concerning the current situation.

In the axis of Water Resources and adaptation to climate change, it is proposed to contribute to an integrated management platform for multi-user water resources by 2025 to have annual consumption reports with traceability validated by 2030. The ecosystems that may have been impacted by the use of water from mining processes are: registered by 2030, impacts mitigated by 2040, and recovered by 2050. Correspondingly, it is proposed to have guidelines to minimize the environmental impact of desalination plants.

In the Biodiversity axis, it is proposed to generate an open platform of biodiversity data by 2025, implement real-time monitoring systems for Andean and high Andean wetlands, the behavior of aquifers and salt lakes, and address impact reduction and restoration programs so that by 2030 mining companies contemplate all measures for the use of the best existing technology, as well as the active promotion of nature-based solutions.

In the area of Concentrates processing, secondary mining, recycling, and environmental liabilities; it is proposed to address the development of technologies that allow tailings to be deposited with less water content, a legal framework to be able to reprocess tailings and ensure that by 2040 all the closed and abandoned tailings deposits that present risks to the environment and people have been mitigated. An effort is also proposed to reduce, reuse and recycle 100% of the waste from mining operations that can be recycled.

In the processing of concentrates, it is proposed to implement by 2030 a new smelter and refinery capacity that is located in the first quartile of economic and socio-environmental competitiveness among the smelters of the world. Besides, positioning Chile as a leader in knowledge and technology of minerals processing and concentrates, integrating the chains from the generation of knowledge in basic research to the export of technologies.

To achieve the goals in this work, increasing the budgets currently allocated to innovation is necessary. How is this obstacle addressed in the proposal made? And where would the essential financing come from to rapidly transition toward green mining?

The sectoral intensity of R&D in mining, that is, the effort in R&D concerning the sectoral GDP, is one of the lowest among the productive sectors in Chile: 0.07% versus 0.32% for the manufacturing industry or 0.72% for the chemical, rubber and plastic industry, according to 2018 data.

For its part, the last national R&D survey of 2020 shows that we remain at an investment in R&D for the national GDP of 0.34%, far from 2.68% of the OECD average. In addition, it showed a dramatic drop in public financing by almost 9% from 2018 to 2020.

Moving toward a more knowledge-based, equitable, and sustainable society will be challenging with this scenario. We are condemned to remain in the group of countries in the middle-income trap.

The Financing working group considers that collecting the specific tax on copper mining and the royalties from lithium contracts in the Salar de Atacama should significantly boost R&D&i in green mining, the energy transition, and carbon neutrality and thereby leverage significant private resources as a counterpart.

Specifically, the creation of programs to address collaborative programs of sectoral interest and the formation of advanced human capital is proposed, as well as the creation of a clean technology validation and scaling fund for US$1,000 million over ten years, with a focus on the development of technology providers.

Likewise, it is proposed that the State promote mechanisms to encourage private investment by creating a Sustainable Economy and Green Investment Fund for US$1,000 million over ten years, with subsidy mechanisms for pre-investment studies that favor local content, with credit guarantee mechanisms, financing for financial intermediaries, and venture capital funds.

How is the institutional framework necessary to achieve these goals addressed?

The proposal presents a conceptual framework for designing an innovation ecosystem in mining, including a governance and institutionality vision.

In short, it is proposed that the Ministry of Mining strengthen its leadership by creating a Mining Innovation Ecosystem Unit in its Development and Public Policy Division, strongly supported by the technical capacities of the Alta Ley Corporation and its multi-actor governance.

This unit’s approach is to interact closely with the institutions of Science, Technology, Innovation, and Productive Development, in particular with the Ministry of Economy and Corfo and with the Ministry of Science and ANID, so that within two years, there is a clear roadmap and the funds and financing mechanisms are implemented.