Damaging the natural environment comes with consequences. Any industry that does so outside of clearly defined regulatory approvals can face stiff penalties that threaten the livelihood of their operation. Even when operating in compliance with regulations, damage caused by industrial activity can have negative consequences for the living things and ecological connections that create the biodiversity present near an operation.
In the mining sector, a lack of past regulations, poor management, insolvency and mine abandonment have created substantial environmental liabilities around the world. In some cases, governments have had to commit millions of dollars to address adverse impacts to the environment from abandoned mines, including significant adverse impacts to biodiversity.
These past issues combined with concern over potential for similar impacts from existing and future projects has thrust the mining industry into the limelight in a negative way. Indigenous peoples and the public are strongly focused on biodiversity in mining, and the potential and actual impacts of mining on biodiversity are front and center in the media.
The focus on biodiversity conservation and the risks posed to biodiversity by ongoing industrial development is amplified by the ambitious commitments presented in the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that is being discussed during the 15th UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) in Montreal in December 2022. The Global Biodiversity Framework presents the vision that “By 2050, biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored, and wisely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people”. Several goals and targets must be met to achieve this vision, including having all businesses assess and report on dependencies and impacts on biodiversity and enhancing the area and integrity of ecosystems such that a net gain in the area, connectivity and integrity of natural systems of at least 5 per cent is achieved by 2030 (i.e., in the next 8 years!).
The process of mineral extraction in mining generally makes it impossible not to cause some damage to the surrounding environment. Given this, how can mining businesses operate responsibly and help work towards the objectives of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework knowing that damaging nature is, in some instances, unavoidable?
The mining industry is beginning to answer this question by stepping up its environmental game, including in the area of biodiversity management. “Biodiversity management is an increasingly central part of most mining operations,” says Dr. Kyle Knopff, Senior Principal, Ecologist for WSP in Canada.
“The mitigation hierarchy of avoid, minimize, rehabilitate and offset is gaining increasing traction within the sector,” says Knopff. “Many mining companies have internalized the importance of biodiversity and have specific ESG goals related to it, including objectives of being Nature Positive and/or achieving a Net Gain for biodiversity because of their operations. The number of companies setting such lofty goals is growing steadily, and such goals are entirely compatible with the objectives of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.”
Although lofty corporate ESG goals are admirable, achieving net gain for biodiversity is challenging and requires carefully planned actions that are also consistent with increasingly stringent government regulations and international good practice guidelines. The mining sector already has a significant set of government regulations that it must comply with that relate to biodiversity.
For example, in Canada, these regulations include the Fisheries Act, the Species at Risk Act, the Migratory Birds Convention Act, provincial/territorial acts, and more. The level of regulatory responsibility varies depending on size of mine and industry. Some smaller mines and mine expansions fall under provincial jurisdiction, whereas large mines require federal approval. Most other countries also have clear regulations linking to biodiversity conservation.
And regulations related to biodiversity continue to evolve. “There is a shift happening,” says Knopff, “one that puts greater emphasis on biodiversity during permitting and operating mines and this shift is likely to strengthen as an outcome of COP 15.
Among other changes, biodiversity offset requirements designed to address all residual impacts of a project and achieve no net loss for some biodiversity elements (e.g., wetlands, species at risk) are becoming more prevalent.
With the increase in expectations for better biodiversity outcomes, permitting mining has become more challenging. Proposed projects that fail to demonstrate acceptable biodiversity outcomes in full compliance with environmental regulations can be rejected, forcing these operations to take a more thorough approach to environmental protections and offsets.
“Biodiversity should be important to everyone,” says Knopff. “But it is especially important to mining companies because failure to adequately account for and manage biodiversity can result in financing challenges, investment loss, fines, suspended operations, permitting rejection, and more. The consequences are too steep not to include biodiversity management as an integral part of every mining operation.”
To continue to improve biodiversity outcomes in the mining sector, Knopff has a few suggestions. “First, there needs to be more stringent application of the mitigation hierarchy, especially in the early design phases. We need to take a hard look at the true costs and benefits of avoidance. Second, we must establish more confidence around, and testing of, mitigation actions designed to benefit biodiversity (i.e., proof of concept), especially if proposing novel approaches or untested ideas during permitting. And, third, we need to see more advanced planning, consultation, and buy in around offsetting.”
Biodiversity is suffering globally because of human activity. By acting to mitigate impacts from mining, corporations can demonstrate their commitment to sustainability and show how they are doing their part to support the objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity. This demonstration will be especially effective where careful avoidance and minimization are applied followed by innovative reclamation programs that create quality habitat for fish, wildlife, plants and other biodiversity elements and finally offsets to address any residual impacts.
Failure to act can result in reduced permitting success, harm corporate image, and potentially limit investor interest in the company. These have significant adverse financial outcomes for mining companies.
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