You may well be reading this article on your smartphone; in which case, it comes to you on an item whose production required at least two dozen metals and other minerals found in different countries. These raw materials needed to be extracted from the earth, a process with significant economic, environmental, political, and social implications. Minerals are essential for modern living, and the demand for minerals found in the earth is set to increase exponentially, with the transition to a low carbon economy and rapid, resource-intensive urbanisation and industrialisation.
Decarbonisation requires technologies that are far from being environmentally neutral. Wind turbines may reduce the carbon required to produce energy but typically contain tons of steel, copper, fibreglass, aluminium and reinforced concrete. It has been estimated that the production of minerals such as graphite, lithium and cobalt may increase nearly 500% by 2050 to meet the demand for clean energy technologies.
All of this means that mining — the science, technique, and business of mineral discovery and extraction — will be one of the most politically and environmentally sensitive areas of the global economy for decades to come. This also means there is increased impetus for circular economy models for metals. There is, therefore, a worldwide need for expertise across the many sectors that mining and minerals touches upon — Geology, Geological Engineering, Materials Engineering, Environmental Management, Economics, Sustainability, Ethics, and, Law, Policy and Governance — to name but a few.
Graduates of these and many other subjects will be in demand, as more mining and more minerals mean that the range and number of careers within the industry will increase significantly in coming decades. The next generation of professionals in the field will face ever-increasing uncertainty, complexity of projects and regulation, and demands for the activity to contribute to sustainable outcomes, to integrate human rights and ESG standards into business models, and to align with the just transitions. It is essential that both undergraduate and postgraduate students endeavour to understand the whole supply chain — from extraction to finished products — regardless of which part of the industry they work in, as well as the dynamics of circular models.
Mining will play a crucial role in financing the post-COVID-19 recovery of many countries. The temptations to override environmental concerns will be greater than ever. Ethical concerns about the practices sometimes associated with mining and minerals sourcing are also growing. Higher standards are now expected in the extraction process, and an interplay of global factors mean that regulations and justice systems will become increasingly vital.
Scientists and Engineers are required to drive the technological innovations that improve productivity and reduce the impact of mining on health and the environment. Lawyers and policy makers are needed to support the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources. Professionals will require skills and expertise in areas not conventionally understood as relating to mining, as the industry expands to incorporate the wider treatment of metals in a circular economy paradigm.
Over the course of their careers, graduates will move between the public, private and civil society sector. Therefore, the focus of their education should be on achieving balanced outcomes in a rule of law environment. Students must be empowered to become leaders in the field by developing the skills to work effectively in multidisciplinary teams and navigate through the challenges and expectations of long-term and often intensive capital projects.
Mining is a dynamic, increasingly vital industry that deals with a multitude of complex technical and moral issues. If we are to avoid simply swapping one ecological crisis for myriad small ones, the industry needs the best graduates to be found.
The writer is Senior Lecturer, Global Law and Resource Governance and Sustainability at the Centre for Energy, Petroleum and Mineral Law Policy at the University of Dundee