One of the most difficult tasks for the global community in the coming decades will be how to build sustainable societies – and not just in an abstract metaphorical sense. How do we physically build the things that form the backbone of modern society?

Take the UN Agenda 2030, for example, with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets. Although it is certainly laudable and remarkable that this framework was agreed on by almost 200 countries, the agenda is just that: an agenda. The key challenge is to translate it into real on-the-ground change that actually improves people’s daily lives. To do this, the agenda must enact policy, policy must enact decisions, and decisions must be translated into mobilizing massive amounts of capital, a substantial chunk of which will be needed to make physical things like housing, industries and infrastructure.

In other words, building better societies is to a large extent about actually building physical, technical artefacts. A clear example of this is that about 53% of the variability in infant mortality in Africa is explained by whether or not a household has access to basic utilities like electricity, sanitation, clean water and telecommunications.

Aerial view of truck at open-pit mine, Dortmund, Germany. The mining and minerals industry will face growing calls to be more sustainable in coming years. Photo: Stephan Zirwes / Getty Images

The challenge: meeting growing demand in a sustainable way

Despite this, in the sustainability realm (as in society in general) there is remarkably little discussion on where all this physical material is going to come from. This needs to change, because the material volumes needed if we are to meet the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, at the same time as we must rearrange large parts the global energy system to something compatible with the Paris climate agreement, are quite staggering.

Even though there are opportunities in increasing the share of materials from renewable (i.e. bio-based) or recycled sources, very large volumes of materials used today and most likely in the future as well will come from the mining and minerals sector. From a sustainable development perspective this is a dilemma, because mineral resource extraction has historically been associated with a range of sustainability problems, including negative impacts on the environment and socioeconomic tensions and conflicts over land use. The question boils down to this: how can the mining and minerals sector contribute the material building blocks for sustainable development while at the same time transforming its own operations so that they are also sustainable?

This question was the starting point for a project run jointly by SEI and Svemin (the Swedish mining and minerals association) from early 2018 to mid-2019. Mining and minerals extraction has a long history in Sweden, and has been one of the foundations of the country’s economy over several centuries. Although its relative importance has decreased, it is still one of the largest export sectors and it is a very important sector in certain regions with otherwise limited employment opportunities. The SEI/Svemin project drew on a number of stakeholder workshops that included representatives from the mining industry but also from academia, government and NGOs, and which aimed to develop long-term scenarios and strategies (see graphics below) for the Swedish mining sector in a sustainable future.

Proposed actions for the mining sector

The stakeholder workshops also yielded suggestions for 200 actions that the Swedish mining sector should take to meet the challenge of supplying sustainable materials for sustainable development. These action points were tested for robustness by a team of industry experts to identify 31 that were especially important and relevant in all four scenarios. These 31 action points were then categorized into six key themes (see graphic).

SEI then analyzed the 31 action points from a broader sustainability perspective and highlighted three themes that the Swedish mining sector especially needs to focus on to realize the ambitions of all 31.

First of all, conflict over land use when establishing new mines is a central sustainability challenge and one that needs to be highly prioritized. This especially concerns issues related to Indigenous rights of the reindeer herding Sami population.

The second theme, which is connected to the first, is an increased ambition to reduce surface impacts of new mines, thereby moving towards achieving previously developed visions of  “the invisible mine”.

Finally, the Swedish mining industry should work towards transforming the current modus operandi in metals markets so it can absorb higher costs from increased sustainability by passing the costs on through the supply chain. While there are substantial challenges in using traceability and supply chain transparency to improve sustainability in the mining sector, and it is obviously an issue that is beyond the scope of the Swedish mining sector alone, it is a path worth pursuing.

Growing focus on sustainability

The growing focus on sustainability in metals extraction that has come in the wake of the debate on raw materials used in batteries for electric vehicles may only be the start. In the coming decades, decarbonization of the energy sector is likely to make the environmental impact of the utilization phase a gradually smaller share of the total life cycle impacts of products. This means that the extraction, processing and manufacturing stages will gain in relative importance, putting further pressure on industrial sectors to improve their sustainability performance.

Given the long planning horizons in the mining sector, it is crucial that necessary change processes are launched soon, so that the sector is well-positioned to meet stronger customer demands on sustainability and to avoid having measures imposed by regulators.