Mining sector starts countdown to earth summit
Author: Amanda Cooper
Some 60,000 delegates, including many heads of state, will gather for 10 days from August 26 in Johannesburg for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which will tackle climate change, the loss of natural resources and, for the first time, mining.
And 10 years on from the first so-called earth summit in Rio de Janeiro, little has changed in mining, environment groups say.
"On the ground, there's been virtually no change. Mining continues to be as polluting and as energy-intensive as it was 10 years ago," Payal Sampat, research associate at the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, said.
Mining strips more of the earth's surface each year than does natural erosion by rivers, Worldwatch says.
The industry is still using noxious chemicals to extract metals, mining waste continues to pose a potential ecological hazard and the sector remains a leading source of the greenhouse gases believed to be responsible for climate change.
Yet the industry is seen to have recognised that is has a pressing problem that demands speedy action.
Nine of the world's top mining firms formed the Global Mining Initiative (GMI) in 2000 to conduct a two-year research programme into sustainable development and the environment.
Hugh Leggatt, communications director for the GMI, said standards might have improved, but that the metals industry was a long way from where it felt it should be.
"We feel that there is progress being made but there is a huge amount of work still has to be done. We're not pretending that we're anywhere near where we ought to be in terms of our reputation," said Leggatt, who is also communications advisor at London-listed resources group Rio Tinto , a GMI member.
The industry's critics, however, remain to be convinced.
"The Rio summit didn't really tackle mining and this summit looks like it's going to be a trade show. So it's going to be pretty unlikely governments are going to do things that we and most communities around the world are saying - that these corporations have to be brought to account," said Matt Philips, a senior campaigner for the UK branch of Friends of the Earth.
"There's going to be no outcomes from it (Johannesburg) like the biodiversity convention, the forest principles and the climate convention - those are off the agenda," Philips said, referring to the three key environment accords reached in Rio.
Johannesburg will also tackle so-called ecological debt - rich nations benefiting from the natural resources of poorer ones at the expense of the eco-system - corporate accountability and human rights.
Worldwatch's Sampat said the fact that mining was on the agenda in South Africa, which relies on the industry for 40 percent of its export earnings, was particularly significant.
"This is where mining will come into some kind of prominence as an environmental issue. We really need to deal with this in Johannesburg - it wasn't even on the table at Rio - a big reason for that is the place where it will be held," she said.
Recycling, using clean materials and cutting back on the amount of new metal mined could all contribute to change, but Philips saw no single solution for the environmental woes of the mining community.
"What should the mining industry do? Well, it's got to take ...action as an industry in its own right. But at the end of the day the breaks are needed from governments which are beyond the wit of the mining industry to deliver," he said.