Metals and mining companies are subject to mounting demand from regulators, customers and shareholders to become more environmentally sustainable. They’re already making significant headway, particularly in Sweden. In the last few years, we’ve seen growing investment in sustainable processes (e.g., electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles, integrated recycling, etc.) and building green business ecosystems.
Recently, HYBRIT, a Swedish green steel venture announced the delivery of the world’s first fossil-free steel or “green steel” to carmaker, Volvo. A few weeks later, Mercedes-Benz also announced their plans to use green steel. A remarkable achievement on all accounts and an optimistic nod for the future. This has been made possible due to a strong history of innovation in Sweden.
In this blog, I shine a spotlight on green mining in Sweden and the roles that data and technology can play in supporting advances not only in this region, but worldwide.
The “green” future of mining
In the provinces of Norrbotten and Västerbotten in northern Sweden, investments exceeding €107.5 billion over 20 years, mainly in the steel, mining, energy and technology industries, are planned. And, they are all focused on sourcing natural materials using green energy-efficient processes or what is called “sustainable mining.” As a part of these plans, more than 25,000 new jobs will be created, which, in turn, means up to 100,000 new residents. The environmental impact of this transition to carbon-free mining and CO2-free steel (also known as “green steel”) is enormous. In Sweden, the mining and steel industries account for 10% of CO2 emissions; worldwide, they account for about 7%.
Sustainable transformation is more than producing CO2-free steel in new factories or building massive battery factories. It is about building long-term sustainable mines with highly digitized and automated operations alongside green hydrogen factories that power production. It is also about building a circular economy with strategic products created from mining waste that can be processed again to produce rare earth minerals and fossil- and cadmium-free fertilizers.
A foundation for the future laid over a century ago
It can be hard to visualize the massive investment being made in Sweden to become sustainable. Here’s an analogy to help illustrate the magnitude of difference between a million and a billion. If you spend a dollar every second for a whole day, it will take a little over 11 days to spend 1 million. It will, however, take you 32 years to spend a billion.
These bold investments in the offing are based on a solid foundation laid over a 100 years ago when the mines in Northern Sweden were created. To transport the ore from the mines, 650 kms of railroads through the arctic mountains to Narvik port were laid. Early on, it was also decided to electrify this long stretch of railroads—an innovative technology at the time. This led to the building of huge hydropower plants along the Luleå River. In fact, the first plant built in a village called Porjus was the first in a series of plants that now produce 46% of Sweden’s total energy.
Since electricity could not be transported far at the time, a smeltering plant in Porjus was planned as it was near the energy source and the raw material to be processed. However, these plans were cancelled when new technologies enabled more efficient transmission of electricity over long distances. This idea has come full circle today with investments in new CO2-free plants that are built close to the mines and the green hydropower energy source, achieving greater sustainability impact.
In one of those early investment years, 7-8% of Sweden's GDP was allocated to these massive projects. The pioneering efforts that began over a century ago continue to contribute significantly to Sweden's prosperity. Like any solidly constructed foundation, the forward-looking efforts of the past are supporting the trailblazing advances underway. Continuous innovation, research and transformation are also why the Swedish mining industry has survived and thrived through product and production evolutions.
Drivers of the future state of mining
Change often starts with one or several of these reasons:
- Advances in technology
- New laws and trading requirements
- Evolving customer needs
All these factors contribute to the changes we see now and the investments linked to reducing CO2 emissions. They will also accelerate the transformation required.
The need to quickly minimize environmental impact and emissions is heightened by increased demand for environmentally friendly production and products. At the same time, change creates opportunities to lower costs by using new technologies such as automation and rethinking how we work. Reducing costs also includes reducing future emission charges and taxes.
Using data and technology to advance green mining initiatives
Sustainable transformation programs are taking place across all pockets of society. These programs sometimes also result in increased use of resources, especially minerals, which form the basis of almost everything—from smartphones to car batteries. An effective production and supply chain from mine to recycling is needed to ensure these programs are true to their sustainability goals.
In addition to reducing carbon emissions through innovations in raw material extraction and production processes, companies are looking to digital transformation and combining technology with new ways of working to achieve sustainability goals. An example is automating the integration of information from different systems and providing access to all the parties involved to facilitate the digital mining permits processes. This will help speed up the processing of mining permits and similar processes such as infrastructure planning and environmental permits.
Along the entire value chain from raw materials to the finished product, demands are increasing to provide evidence of the so-called “purity.” To achieve this, an increasing amount of produced and stored data is required, which, in turn, requires connection to digital traceability solutions. And, of course, all this additional data must be handled without creating non-green emissions. The application of space technology, for instance, is becoming more common to support traceability and analysis—partly to track and measure emissions and also to understand and optimize the supply chain. For example, the European Space Agency (ESA) has begun working on a digital twin of Earth to understand better how global food management works. Our experts are helping to build the prototype of the digital twin. This is the first step in creating an ecosystem around food management.
Building an ecosystem with shared sustainability values
Digital transformation strategies that incorporate data-driven operations are a natural and necessary part of the transformation, so is working with an ecosystem of partners. Therefore, the technology industry will play an important role in supporting the change and will be core to helping mining organizations reinvent for the future. Optimizing processes, transparent reporting of relevant emission KPIs, efficient water consumption and re-use, and energy efficiencies are all areas where metals and mining companies can benefit from deep technology experience.
Moving from reacting to predicting in future mining operations requires collaboration, and to produce carbon-free products, all parties in the ecosystem must be “clean.” At CGI, we are committed to supporting the environment through responsible operating practices and achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. Equally importantly, we are committed to providing robust sustainability solutions to help our clients and partners advance their sustainability journey.
We are at the beginning of the most significant social transformations that have taken place. The change that is happening now and that needs to happen requires collaboration across industries and borders, and we all have a part to play to make it happen. Contact me to learn more about how we can work together to support a green future.