Sustainability and the reduction of environmental impact, in addition to good governance and respect for workers’ rights, are mandatory values for all industries. Gold is no exception: the implementation of these principles has required a long road and not a few headaches for companies.
Gold production is a very complex task that involves various industries, each with its own characteristics and needs: mining, processing, transport, refining, manufacturing of ingots… These are industries with enormous energy needs and processes in those that use chemical compounds that can be highly polluting .
On the other hand, physical gold , as an asset, has a series of advantages (intrinsic value at any time and place; enormous density, which allows concentrating a great weight in a small size; anonymity…) that can become disadvantages, since which is an instrument widely used to finance terrorist groups or to launder money from crimes such as drug trafficking or arms trafficking.
For this reason, the gold industry has spent years striving to make the precious metal a sustainable product and produced with the least possible environmental impact, and to guarantee end customers that their gold has a guaranteed origin and has not served to launder money or to finance armed groups.
Simplifying the matter, the problems that gold can generate are divided into three aspects: contamination in the mining and production phase; polluting emissions from the industry; doubtful origin of the metal (irregular mining).
We are going to explain these issues and what the industry has done about them in each of the three aspects.
One of the main problems that the gold mining industry has faced is the separation of this metal from the rest of the elements with which it is mixed. The mining industry has long used a dangerous chemical, cyanide , to cause the chemical reaction that allows gold to be isolated.
The problem is that cyanide is a highly toxic chemical element and the way it is used has given rise to accidents that have caused the contamination of aquifers with this compound, causing serious ecological damage.
One of the most serious took place in Romania, in the year 2000, when the rupture of a tank caused the discharge of more than 100,000 cubic meters of cyanide into the waters of the Somesriver.
Industry awareness following that accident led to the signing, that same year, of the International Cyanide Management Code , a voluntary code governing the manufacture, transportation, and use of cyanide in the gold mining industry, signed by companies and organizations from 54 countries.
In addition, local laws approved various restrictions and prohibitions that remain in force in Argentina, Eastern Europe, Central America and the United States.
As of today, the industry is trying to eradicate the use of cyanide in the processing of gold ore, although the question is not easy, since the alternatives are more complex, expensive and recover less percentage of gold.
Even so, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) , an agency dependent on the Government of Australia, has developed, together with the mining company Barrick Gold , a thiosulfate-based leaching process that eliminates chemical risks and has already begun to be used industrial form.
Another problem generated by the gold industry is polluting emissions. It is an industry that makes very intensive use of energy, with a large amount of heavy machinery powered by diesel, which releases tons of CO 2 into the atmosphere.
According to the report ‘Gold and climate change: current and future impact’ , published by the World Gold Council in 2018, the total annual CO 2 emissions by the gold industry amount to 126 million tons.
The objective of the industry is to reduce these emissions to zero in the year 2050, for which various initiatives are being implemented.
One of the most advanced is the one that takes place in the Borden gold mine (Canada), exploited by the American mining company Newmont . It is the world’s first electric mine, with a fleet of underground machines powered by electricity and controlled remotely.
This sustainable mining model, with zero greenhouse effect emissions, is the one that the industry must adopt in order to opt for the goal of zero emissions by the year 2050. It remains to be seen if the rate of implementation is as desired.
Possibly one of the biggest problems facing the gold industry is how to stop the entry of gold from small-scale artisanal mining operations into the international market.
These farms are widespread mainly in African countries and in Central and South America, with very rudimentary means of work, without any control over polluting discharges or emissions, and prone to labor and human rights abuses.
On many occasions, these exploitations extract gold on behalf of terrorist, paramilitary or arms or drug trafficking organizations, which benefit from the sale of gold to launder their finances.
Governments in Africa and America have tried to legalize this situation by articulating formulas to acquire the production of these miners , process it in state refineries in order to have the guarantees that allow them to sell it in the international market.
The gold industry, for its part, has taken steps such as the publication, in 2019, by the World Gold Council, of the ‘Responsible Gold Mining Principles’ , which globally address the problems faced by production of gold.
In total, 10 principles are included , related to governance (ethical conduct, impact control, supply chain); social (health and safety, human rights, labor rights, involvement with local communities); and environmental (environmental responsibility, protection of biodiversity, energy, water and climate change).