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ESG to be front and centre of post-COVID-19 agenda

Sustainability initiatives in the mining sector could be sidelined during the COVID-19 crisis, however, the industry is likely to see a resumption – or perhaps even acceleration – of the environmental, social and governance push that has dominated the past 12 months once some form of normality resumes, experts have told Mining Journal.
ESG to be front and centre of post-COVID-19 agenda ESG to be front and centre of post-COVID-19 agenda ESG to be front and centre of post-COVID-19 agenda ESG to be front and centre of post-COVID-19 agenda ESG to be front and centre of post-COVID-19 agenda

Chris Cann

Head of Aspermont Research & Intelligence

Chris Cann

Church of England Pensions Board ethics and engagement director, Adam Matthews, said investors should allow mining companies a reasonable level of flexibility across all operational and business functions during this crisis period, though there was an expectation executives would keep the wheels turning on core ESG programmes.

"We're going to be standing with any company making sensible prudent decisions to manage the immediate focus of the crisis," he told Mining Journal as part of a COVID-19 podcast series.

"Does that mean they ditch all the good practice they were doing to address key issues - health and safety, human rights, climate change - clearly we would expect companies to remain engaged with those issues."

There was a risk, however, that some parts of the sector could see standards drop as opportunities to ensure survival clashed with long-term sustainability initiatives. The most obvious example of this would be the collapse in oil prices, which presents an opportunity for cheap fuel, potentially at the expense of renewable energy projects or electrification.

This represented a very practical challenge for executives being squeezed from both a cost and an ESG perspective, according to Rio Tinto executive to the CEO Energy and Minerals, Catriona Beadel.

"During times of economic uncertainty, [businesses] focus on [being] cheap - ‘let's just get our costs down'," she said. "So, will all the good work that's being going on in the past five years [around climate change] that has accelerated over the past 12-24 months maintain momentum going forward if some of the initiatives are not the most cost effective?

"It could perhaps cause a deceleration toward a green future, which is unfortunate."

However, Beadel said if the wider industry was cognisant of this risk - potentially aided by investor and government pressure - it could be managed and progress on climate change mitigation could continue unabated.

While there will be an element of flexibility on implementing and executing some ESG initiatives in the short term, any executives who haven't yet fully embraced the sustainability movement, and who are hoping it gets kicked into the long grass, are likely to be disappointed.

Matthews said the public would be expecting a different policy agenda on the other side of this crisis that focuses on systemic challenges. He said the greater government stakes in cross-sector private enterprise would give bureaucrats more leavers to pull in bending businesses to those policies.

"When you look at the other great economic crises, society itself really expects governments that follow those periods, as the recovery kicks in, [to have] very different policy responses.

"We need to be putting in place a much more resilient financial system that's able to respond much more promptly. We need to have in place strategies to address other systemic challenges like climate.

"My suspicion is you're going to see government as a much larger actor in that space and therefore the dialogue with government is going to need to change - the regulations [we'll be] talking about are potentially very different to those we've talked about previously."

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Matthews' point on resilience was echoed to some degree by ArcelorMittal general manager for sustainable development and corporate responsibility, Dr Alan Knight, who told Mining Journal the long-term sustainability agenda may be sidelined for a period in favour of a focus on establishing more robust systems and businesses.

However, he suggested the ESG objectives miners were striving for in a sustainability context were likely to prove to be similar to those needed to meet a resilience agenda.

"ESG to many might feel less relevant than ever before but the reality is it might be more relevant," he said.

"Sustainability is how we combat long-term systemic threats such as climate change, population growth, finite natural resources etc - what do we have to do to ensure we have a functioning economy for 9 billion people in 2050.

"Resilience is how you prepare your business for unexpected shocks today. That can be as simple as having enough cash in the bank to having flexible systems to cope with shocks from weather or, as we know now, pandemic related [shocks].

"So, the focus might move from tomorrow to today but a lot of the things companies are asked to do will be the same."

The COVID-19 podcast interviews are part of Mining Journal's Stakeholder Engagement programme, a 12-month campaign focused on helping the mining industry better understand and engage with key stakeholder groups. Find out more here.


Adam Matthews from the Church of England discusses COVID-19

Listen to the Adam Matthews interview in full here.


Catriona Beadel from Rio Tinto and the Young Mining Professionals discusses COVID-19

Listen to the Catriona Beadel interview in full here.


Dr Alan Knight from ArcelorMittal discusses COVID-19

Listen to the Alan Knight interview in full here.


Full interviews with these and other experts are available on the Mining Journal Stakeholder engagement website on