As South Africa prepares to transition to renewable sources of energy, carbon-intensive companies such as coal exporter Thungela can assist in this energy transition by ensuring delivery of higher quality, responsibly-mined coal, states Thungela CEO July Ndlovu.
“This transition is going to require looking at sustainability from a broader environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) perspective. When discussing climate change and risks, we also need to discuss land stewardship, land management, emissions, biodiversity, water management, all of which fall under the ‘E’ of ESG.
“We have to think about our impact on communities that are reliant on products such as our coal, and the markets that are dependent on burning the coal that we produce,” explains Ndlovu.
He emphasises that Thungela’s ESG programmes are designed to ensure that the company delivers responsible and sustainable outcomes for the communities in which it operates. The company also follows international best practice procedures for Thungela’s disclosure practices.
Thungela is a local producer and exporter of high-quality, low-cost thermal coal. This creates an “exclusionary risk” as the local economy transitions to renewable-energy sources.
As new technologies are developed – often requiring mining of ‘green metals’ for inputs – Ndlovu highlights that existing energy sources, such as coal, will be needed to extract these green metals.
“The pathway to transition into new technologies requires that we provide reliable and affordable energy. The question of affordable and reliable power is often downplayed, but when renewable sources such as wind aren’t available, we use coal. We need to ensure that we can continue to supply reliable energy. That’s the role coal producers play to ensure that this transition can happen in a responsible and coordinated manner.”
He also stresses that as new energy technologies are developed, new opportunities for alternative uses of coal can also be explored.
No One Left Behind
Ndlovu highlights the fact that, in many regions which Thungela and other miners operate, particularly in South Africa, mining companies are often a supplier of critical infrastructure. This can include hospitals and other health facilities, as well as water treatment plants and, more recently, energy infrastructure.
This includes Thungela’s Emalahleni water reclamation plant, which provides a significant amount of water to the local community.
“As we approach this energy transition, we are beginning to think about two different concepts. The first is life-beyond-mining activities, and the second is alternative livelihoods, and some of the activities we leave behind to ensure that there are alternative livelihoods available when reaching the end of the life-of-mine.”
As an example, Thungela’s irrigation trial at Mafube, in Mpumalanga, tests the viability of using rehabilitated ground, as well as mine water, for agriculture.
Thungela’s pilot eDNA project at Isibonelo Colliery, in Mpumalanga, also analyses samples to determine the positive or negative impacts of rehabilitation on the environment.
He adds that Thungela has created ownership structures that ensure that Thungela can transfer some of the economic value generated to host communities, not just its shareholders.
“Through this, we begin to invest not only in meeting critical needs today, but also in the future of these communities. This notion of shared value is just as important as we progress through this transition.”
Further, Ndlovu states that, for this energy transition to maximise growth and job creation, South Africa should use an “inclusive growth pathway” which recognises the importance of coexistence of a range of multiple energy sources.
“Ensuring that South Africans have access to secure energy is important to us. But equally, we have a role to play – given that we produce a high-quality export product – to continue to use the resource entrusted to us in the most responsible manner, and to make sure that everyone, not just our shareholders, benefits from our activities. That’s how we’re going to move forward,” he concludes.