CSIRO shines a light on mining's triple bottom line


A new report by CSIRO and University of Sydney has opened up the full production chain for Australian industries to reveal that some industries, like mining, are more sustainable than generally assumed.

Balancing Act, a world first, looks across 135 industry sectors of the Australian economy and quantifies the impacts and contributions across ten social, environmental, and financial indicators. This work will help government, industries, and even individual consumers, to look at the sustainability of different goods and services in a whole new light.

Report co-author CSIRO scientist, Barney Foran, says that sustainability for Australia is a balancing act as we try to make decisions and trade offs in the face of often-competing economic, social and environmental goals.

"Generally mining is not really thought of as particularly sustainable by the community at large", says Foran.

"Our work shows that in terms of the triple bottom line, mining actually has a more positive impact across environmental and financial indicators than we would have thought. For mining, the financial indicators are well above the economy wide average, while the environmental indicators are better than average for each consumption dollar.

"The main challenge for basic mining is that some social indicators are well below average which poses the question of whether the wider Australian community obtains sufficient social returns for the increasing volumes of raw resource exports," says Foran. Different to other studies because of its detailed scrutiny of the full production chain, this report is able to show the full effects both direct and indirect of the production of an individual commodity or service.

"Now that we can look at the full upstream effects, we can highlight how mining could take up the sustainability challenge for metals by embracing stewardship of the whole metals cycle," says Foran. "This would increase the industry's triple bottom rating by improving the social benefits though increasing jobs and stimulating the services aspects of metals stewardship and its place in the nation's industrial ecology."

"Aluminium and steel are great examples of how production chain stewardship should be done. The next challenge is to include most of the base metals. The "Green Lead" initiative for BHP Billiton's Cannington mine in Queensland provides a great example of the approach. The national challenge is now to create more jobs and profits from metals stewardship, than from virgin mining. When this goal is reached, Australia might then be judged to be on the cusp of the sustainability revolution."

Balancing Act uses ten social, environmental and financial indicators. The social indicators are employment, income and government revenue. The environmental indicators are water use, land disturbance, greenhouse gas emission and energy use. The financial indicators are profits, exports and imports.

All effects are referenced back to a consumption dollar roughly the dollar spent by a consumer in everyday life. It also shows that each consumption dollar is quite different some dollars are positive and create employment, or send out exports or generate government revenue. Other dollars are less positive through their high use of water or production of greenhouse gas emissions.

This relatively simply presentation of highly complex issues make this a powerful tool for people in industry, government and the community who are interested in sustainability to move beyond decisions based merely on dollars and cents and enable them to make decisions based on a contribution to society, environment, and economy.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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