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Amid climate concerns, mining giants pivot to hydroelectricity, reducing emissions and setting new sustainability benchmarks for the industry.

Amidst the lush jungles of Sorowako, South Sulawesi, a scene unfolds that encapsulates the changing face of the mining industry. Red sparks fly as a worker, clad in a heat-resistant suit, engages with a nickel smelter. This facility, owned by the global mining giant Vale, produces a staggering 75,000 tons of nickel annually. The metal, crucial for batteries, electric vehicles, and various other products, is sourced from a facility powered by three hydroelectric dams.

The irony is palpable. While the smelting process emits significant greenhouse gases, the energy source is relatively clean. This shift towards cleaner energy in mining operations comes at a time when the world is grappling with the urgent need to combat climate change. The demand for minerals like nickel and cobalt, essential for renewable energy solutions, is skyrocketing.

According to McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm, mining operations contribute to 4%-7% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. However, there's a silver lining. Many mining companies are now pivoting towards renewable energy sources, driven in part by the demands of their customers who are seeking more sustainable supply chains.

Vale Indonesia, a subsidiary of the international mining behemoth Vale, is a case in point. Nestled beside a pristine lake in Sorowako, the company's smelters are powered entirely by hydroelectricity. This shift has enabled Vale to slash its emissions by over 1.115 million tons of CO2 equivalent annually, compared to if they were using diesel. The company proudly states that its greenhouse gas emissions have plummeted by nearly 20% since 2017.

However, as the global demand for materials essential for renewable energy solutions like batteries and solar panels grows, so does the carbon footprint of miners and refiners. This paradox underscores the importance of proactive measures to decarbonize the industry.

Around the globe, mining companies are taking note. In Chile, solar plants are powering the mining sector, which is instrumental in producing copper and lithium. Canada's Raglan Mine has also embraced wind power in recent years.

Experts say improved technology, pressure from customers and enforcement of clean energy policies all are needed to keep moving toward more sustainable mining and refining practices while raising output to keep pace with global needs for pivoting away from reliance on polluting fossil fuels.

Michael Goodsite, a professor at the University of Adelaide, believes that the industry is learning from the oversights of the industrial revolution. He is optimistic about the future, stating that the transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources can offer valuable lessons for others.

Indonesia, the world's leading nickel producer, is also undergoing a transformation. According to AP News, the nation's push towards sustainability has garnered support from global giants like Volvo, Mercedes, Hyundai, and Apple. These companies are on a quest for sustainably sourced materials to fulfill their environmental commitments. A testament to this commitment was the recent collaboration between Ford Motor Co. and Vale Indonesia to establish a $4.5 billion nickel processing plant.

However, challenges persist. Vale Indonesia's CEO, Febriany Eddy, highlighted the company's continued reliance on coal for specific operations. While she envisions a transition to liquefied natural gas (LNG) as a cleaner alternative, she acknowledges it's not the perfect solution. The debate around LNG as a "bridge fuel" is ongoing, with concerns about its environmental impact.

The transition to renewable energy in mining is not without its financial hurdles. The initial investment in renewable infrastructure can be daunting. Vale's hydroelectric dams in Sorowako took decades to become financially viable. However, the long-term benefits, both environmentally and economically, are undeniable.

Aimee Boulanger, of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, emphasizes the potential of renewable energy in attracting green financing and future investors. The global focus on environmental responsibility, especially in the aftermath of a pandemic and amidst a climate crisis, has never been more pronounced.

However, not all companies are on board. Many, especially in China, continue to prioritize cost over sustainability. Michael Goodsite believes that the onus is on investors and consumers to drive change. The transition away from fossil fuels in mining will come at a price, but the long-term benefits for the planet are invaluable.

Eunice is a sustainability writer whose passion is sharing accessible eco-friendly practices with GreenCitizen's global readership. She enjoys birdwatching during her downtime, often deriving inspiration from nature's resilience. An enthusiastic cyclist, she is also an ardent advocate of eco-friendly transport.

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