Environmental stewardship and the mining sector – powering a greener future

By Advocate Tsheko Ratsheko, Group Manager of Environment, Mining Licences, and Sustainability at ‎Exxaro Resources

We and our planet are in an environmental crisis. Climate change, population growth, pollution, poverty, and an increasing demand for natural resources which are damaging to our natural ecosystems, are some of the most significant challenges we must overcome. The impact of human industry on our atmosphere, land, water, and biodiversity is not only visible today but is also increasing over time.

But with these pressing challenges also come unique opportunities for change. Reducing the environmental impact of the mining industry has become more than an ethical or regulatory imperative; it can also be a viable business model that capitalises on resource efficiency to achieve long-term sustainability and business resilience.

Exxaro is one of  South Africa’s largest coal mining companies but also one of the first significant investors in renewable energy solutions. Protecting our ecosystems and transitioning towards cleaner, renewable energy has long been a core strategic objective for Exxaro.

The importance of environmental stewardship

Responsible environmental stewardship is about protecting and preserving natural resources for the greater good of all our stakeholders. Water scarcity, air pollution, biodiversity threats, hazardous waste, and climate change all pose significant environmental and financial risks that we need to manage while delivering on other business objectives. Without a clear environmental strategy in mind, it is not possible for the business to be able to respond effectively to the emergent systemic shocks and be sustainable. Given our dependence on natural resources and systems for human sustainability, an inconsiderate approach to environmental stewardship will undermine much-needed development and human progress.

Since 2006, we have developed group-wide environmental management standards which are reviewed annually and guided by reference to global instruments. In the next 10 years, we plan to increase our efforts and focus on environmental stewardship by reducing our greenhouse gases through investing in self-generated renewable electricity and alternative fuels, ensuring water availability through efficiency and recycling efforts, managing the potential effects of severe weather events (such as heatwaves) through best practice adaptive methods and waste management through increased recycling considerations.

Transitioning to a low-carbon future

Fossil fuels are becoming a less acceptable energy source and global energy generation is moving towards renewable energy, hence Exxaro has made the strategic decision not to seek further growth in thermal coal. As the largest supplier of coal to Eskom, however, our coal portfolio remains a valuable natural resource that must be extracted optimally and responsibly to continue providing energy security, which will support economic growth and social development in South Africa. An early maximisation of the value of our coal assets will enable our transition to low-carbon alternatives while minimising the social impact on employees and communities that depend on the coal economy and enabling a Just Transition to a low-carbon economy.

In 2009, we made our first significant investment in renewable energy with the Tsitsikamma Community Wind Farm, providing 95 megawatts of clean, zero-carbon energy into the national power grid. In 2012, we partnered with the Tata Power Company to form Cennergi and began our second renewable energy project: the Amakhala Emoyeni Wind Farm. In 2019, we further bolstered our renewable energy portfolio by acquiring the remaining 50% share of Cennergi.

With these investments, we have firmly established ourselves as a leader in green energy while continuing to deliver high-quality coal to our existing clients. Building our renewable energy portfolio not only gives us long-term resilience to climate-related risks but also opens up alternative economic activities. 

Full carbon disclosure

Because we currently still rely on fossil fuel as our primary energy resource in South Africa, managing our emissions remains a priority. South Africa has arguably set the most aggressive emissions target of any developing country, aiming to reduce emissions by 34% by 2020 and 42% by 2025. Global leaders are meeting in Glasgow in November 2021 at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), and each member party (including South Africa) must present revised commitments on their carbon emission targets. If anything good has come from the pandemic, lockdown periods have shown that these targets can be met, albeit through severe restrictions on economic activity.

Exxaro measures manage and report energy and carbon data in terms of the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol, which provides a standard measurement platform to compare emissions internationally and locally. During 2020, we reported a 9% decrease in carbon intensity and a 7% reduction in electricity intensity due to energy efficiency projects at our business units.

The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), a UK-based organisation that oversees a global environmental disclosure system, provides valuable insights into corporate strategies for environmental stewardship. The system also helps to channel investment to companies adhering to sustainable carbon and emissions management. It also provides our environmental reporting with a central data repository that is audited and assured externally every year. That level of transparency in environmental reporting is crucial, as it holds organisations liable for their emissions.

Water, waste, and air

Environmental stewardship must also extend beyond carbon considerations. Water is a strategic natural resource for South Africa and our business, which is why we have committed to responsible and sustainable water use through efficient reuse and recycling,

Our waste management policy is also critical to maintaining our licence to operate. We have moved from a cradle-to-grave philosophy to a more circular, cradle-to-cradle approach. We see waste as a business opportunity and have developed cost and benefits analyses of our hazardous waste stream. Using digital systems to track and monitor sources of our hazardous waste, we are also able to eliminate or reuse waste at the source.

Mining activities such as drilling, blasting, crushing, transportation, materials handling, and storing generate dust. We therefore regularly improve our mitigation measures to reduce the impact of these on the surrounding atmosphere, such as avoiding blasts during high wind conditions, applying chemical dust suppressants, or using vegetation on topsoil stockpiles.

During 2020, we focused on going beyond compliance and implemented our reviewed air quality management system at various business units. The dust fallout rate at most of our operations complied with the regulated residential and non-residential limits, largely due to these dust suppression measures.

Preserving biodiversity is critical

Biodiversity loss has been identified as being at significant risk in the context of climate change. Considering this, we have been implementing several projects to ensure that our mines coexist in harmony with the natural environment. These include an Alien Invader Eradication Programme, a Wetland Rehabilitation Project, and Biodiversity Relocation Programmes.

These initiatives and programmes aim to protect indigenous flora and fauna species and support local ecosystems beyond the areas Exxaro operates in. We have committed to exceeding our biodiversity goals so that both current and future generations can enjoy a clean and flourishing natural environment.

Powering a greener future

There is a common misconception that the mining sector cannot coexist with environmental stewardship but Exxaro has proven otherwise. Guided by environmental sustainability practices and our vision “Resources Powering a Clean World’ to direct our business strategies, we have strengthened our organisational resilience while protecting the future of our environment. These are stewardship practices will transfer to future mining opportunities for sustainable growth.

Over the years, we have developed a comprehensive response for climate change that will continue to reap benefits for our company, our communities, and the environment for years to come.

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Newly appointed board member Chanda Nxumalo shares Exxaro’s climate change vision

Exxaro recently announced the appointment to its board of a trailblazer in the climate change and renewable energy space. Chanda Joanne Nxumalo is the resource company’s latest Independent Non-Executive Director, and she’s set to play a key role in Exxaro’s energy growth strategy.

Nxumalo is an electrical engineer by training, having also obtained a master’s degree in engineering, economics and management from the University of Oxford. With over 15 years of experience working locally and internationally in the renewable energy sector, Nxumalo has the know-how to support Exxaro’s focus on realising value through clean and renewable energy.

She started her career as an engineer, tightening nuts and bolts on wind turbines in the United States before making the move to working on energy projects across Africa as a renewable energy consultant. This means that she truly understands all aspects of the renewable energy business.

As a lifelong learner, Nxumalo is looking forward to expanding her knowledge and skill set as a result of joining such an experienced and knowledgeable board. “My passion is driving change, and Exxaro has a very exciting strategy to drive sustainability and to facilitate a Just Transition both in the minerals and energy sectors,” she explains

Although our economy is still reliant on coal-powered energy, Nxumalo is excited about the opportunities we have to reimagine a renewable energy future for the country. “South Africa has an endowment of not only coal and minerals but also of renewable energy potential with options that include solar, wind, hydro and other new technologies. As a country, we can really benefit from using these resources. In South Africa, even the province with the worst solar resource has better solar resource than Germany, which has 52 gigawatts of solar energy installed. We only have 4 gigawatts of energy installed, so there is still so much potential for growth,” Nxumalo adds.

Exxaro shares this vision and has been incorporating renewable energy solutions into its portfolio since 2010. The company’s acquisition of the remaining 50% of Cennergi, which owns and operates wind farms in the Eastern Cape, is the first step on a journey to be carbon neutral by 2050.

She agrees that businesses have a critical role to play when it comes to decreasing carbon emissions and global warming. Companies need to focus on reducing carbon emissions as well as fossil fuel energy usage looking at energy efficiency measures, reducing demand and assessing the energy system holistically.

Like Exxaro, Nxumalo is passionate about ensuring a Just Transition to a low-carbon future. “We need to take into consideration the communities that we’re working with, putting in place measures to enable them to participate in the changing economies that will emerge in the future. This includes providing training and retraining for the staff of Exxaro, and also extend to finding ways to support small businesses and communities.”

As a young Black woman in the renewable energy space, she understands how important diversity and representation are if the sector is to thrive. Nxumalo recalls that the first conference she spoke at, she was the only woman, the only person of colour, and the only person younger than 25 speaking. “It’s essential to see someone like you in a position that you can aspire to. When it comes to diversity and inclusion, we need to understand that differences are strengths and not weaknesses. Without diversity, we risk not being able to progress as a company and as a society.”

Nxumalo’s message for young girls and women who want to pursue a career in the energy sector is to go for it. She sees that women often are held back by questioning themselves and self-doubt. “You are smart, you are capable, you can do this, so just do it.” She advises them to get involved and learn from the experience of others. 

Exxaro CEO Mxolisi Mgojo welcomed Nxumalo to the board, emphasising how pleased he was that her vision for the future aligned so perfectly with Exxaro’s. “By joining forces with like-minded people who share our passion for ensuring a better tomorrow, we know that our vision to power possibility through clean and renewable energy technology ventures is on track to becoming a reality,” Mgojo concluded.

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AECOM fulfils key QS role at Exxaro building to assist with green rating

Sustainable buildings not only benefit the occupants, but also achieve a lower cost of occupancy for clients, while at the same time having a positive impact on the environment. Tenants are now much more aware of the benefits of occupying green buildings, which in turn makes leases more attractive. A healthy lifestyle is not only a priority for modern society, but has become a norm rather than a ‘nice to have’ for medium-to-large corporates in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

An example of this trend is the new Exxaro head office in Centurion by leading developer Growthpoint Properties. “The development manager on the Lakeside project took a very personal approach to achieving Green Star accreditation and wanted the Exxaro building to be a first of its kind. Growthpoint has a strong focus on building sustainable green-rated buildings, with a large emphasis on the health and well-being of its tenants,” explains Kristina Moodley, Associate Quantity Surveyor, Cost Management, Buildings + Places at AECOM.

AECOM was responsible for the structural, civil, geotechnical and quantity surveying (QS) aspects.

The iconic project is one of only a handful of buildings in South Africa to boast an As-Built 6 Star Green Star rating from the Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA), the highest level of sustainability accreditation in the country. It is also the first building in South Africa to achieve Silver Level WELL certification for Core and Shell by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI). The Exxaro head office won the AfriSam Innovation Award for Sustainable Construction at the Construction World Best Projects Awards 2019 and was Highly Commended in the Consulting Engineering Category. It also won in the Projects Greater Than R250 million category at the 2012 CESA Aon Engineering Excellence Awards.

AECOM was actively involved in assisting the green consultant with its budget calculations on the different points strategies required to result in achieving 4, 5 and 6 Star Green Star and WELL ratings respectively. “We are hands-on, constantly managing, monitoring and aligning the construction costs against the budget when implementing Green Star specific initiatives via the main contract and report to the client on a monthly basis,” elaborates Moodley. The premier consulting firm was also part of the Green Star submission process and had to provide QS reports that evaluated and quantified the data used by the GBCSA to ultimately assess the building’s compliance against Green Star point targets.

“From a QS perspective, our experience with green buildings positioned us well in bid submissions, which now expressly call for previous Green Star project exposure as a prequalification criterion. We have successfully built up a substantial portfolio, having had the opportunity to execute projects for esteemed clients such as Growthpoint, Abland and Eris Properties, to name but a few. This has strengthened our already prominent footprint in the QS field. The exposure has given us undeniable and invaluable knowledge to financially manage the most complex of projects successfully,” comments Moodley.

The AECOM team was pivotal in unlocking the project, providing a financial blueprint which balanced the Class 8 dolomitic ground conditions together with various site constraints, market rentals and client aspirations in terms of ‘green’ accreditations and return on investment, enabling the team to deliver a cost-effective, world-class project. Sustainable practices that were incorporated included stormwater attenuation and filtration.

A rainwater system collects water and feeds it into the stormwater filtration system. This water is recycled and re-used by the building for irrigation and sanitary flushing. Leak detection is incorporated in all systems involving the flow of water, such as soil drainage, water supply and stormwater attenuation. These detection methods link back to the Building Management System (BMS), which alerts facilities management of any leaks that may occur, thereby saving on water consumption while complying with dolomitic restrictions.

Looking at the impact of Covid-19 on the property development sector, Moodley points out that large corporates still require expansive office space. However, those who have adapted to working remotely will follow the trend of smaller hot desk workspace setups. AECOM’s QS offering, in particular, specialises in commercial fit-outs.

“AECOM quantity surveyors have the expertise, knowledge and proven track record in unlocking developments for clients across the various commercial, residential, industrial and infrastructure sectors. We pride ourselves in working closely with our clients in making their vision a reality,” concludes Moodley.

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