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Photo illustration by John Lyman

If the world ever embraces carbon-neutral mining and CO2-free steel, thank the Swedes.

Amid the cascading effects of a global paradigm shift, mining and metal corporations stand at the crossroads of environmental innovation. This wave of green imperatives emanates from varied sources—a confluence of regulations, consumer preferences, and shareholder advocacy. Its ripples are already making significant impacts, particularly in nations like Canada and Sweden, which have become unlikely vanguards in the push for sustainability.

Recent years have marked a notable surge in investments aimed at revolutionizing industrial systems and operational methodologies—showcasing a pivot toward electric and hydrogen-powered machinery, and the integration of robust recycling mechanisms. In tandem, a constellation of green business ecosystems has begun to take shape.

The Swedish green steel initiative, HYBRIT, has taken a historic leap with the announcement of the world’s inaugural batch of fossil-free steel, aptly named “green steel,” to automotive manufacturer Volvo. Close on its heels, Mercedes-Benz unveiled parallel ambitions. This heralds a sea change, underpinned by Sweden’s storied legacy of innovation.

Green steel: A northern light

In the northern Swedish provinces of Norrbotten and Västerbotten, a monumental financial commitment of over €107.5 billion is forecasted for the ensuing two decades, with a concentration in the domains of steel, mining, energy, and technology. The central philosophy? “Sustainable mining”—the harmonious extraction of natural resources powered by green, energy-efficient means.

These initiatives are poised to generate upward of 25,000 new jobs, potentially welcoming 100,000 individuals to these burgeoning communities. The environmental implications of this transition toward carbon-neutral mining and CO2-free steel are colossal, given that these industries contribute to 10% of Sweden’s CO2 emissions and 7% globally.

However, sustainable transformation transcends the mere output of CO2-free steel or the construction of gargantuan battery factories. It encompasses the inception of eco-friendly mines equipped with cutting-edge digitization and automation, as well as the deployment of green hydrogen facilities to fuel the production processes. Further, it entails the creation of a circular economy, where strategic by-products of mining are recycled into valuable commodities like rare earth minerals and environmentally benign fertilizers.

The scale of Sweden’s sustainable investment is staggering, likened to the difference between a million and a billion. To spend a million dollars at the rate of one dollar per second would take just over 11 days, but to expend a billion would require a staggering 32 years.

A century-long sustainable mining legacy

The foundation of this audacious investment strategy was laid over a century ago with the inception of the mines in Northern Sweden. To facilitate ore transportation, 650 kilometers of railway were constructed through the Arctic mountains to the Narvik port. At the time, an ambitious decision to electrify this vast network spurred the creation of monumental hydropower plants along the Luleå River. Porjus, a quaint village, became the site of the first of these plants, contributing to 46% of Sweden’s energy output today.

The blueprint for modern CO2-free plants is built upon this proximity to mines and renewable energy sources, thereby maximizing the sustainability impact. The notion of leveraging local resources for production, initially stymied by technological limitations on electricity transmission, has come full circle with the new investments.

Factors of change: A convergence of catalysts

During the nascent phase of these projects, a significant portion of Sweden’s GDP—7-8%—was allocated to these monumental undertakings. The pioneering spirit of those early days persists, underpinning the nation’s affluence. It’s the relentless pursuit of innovation, research, and adaptation that has ensured the survival and prosperity of the Swedish mining industry.

Change is precipitated by several factors: breakthroughs in technology, the introduction of new regulations and market conditions, shifts in consumer demand, and competitive pressures. Together, these elements are driving the current eco-centric metamorphosis, with investments directly linked to slashing CO2 emissions and catalyzing the required transformation.

The urgency to mitigate environmental impacts and emissions is magnified by the escalating demand for green production methods and products. Concurrently, this transformation opens avenues to cost reduction through technological innovation like automation, and a reimagining of operational frameworks—this includes mitigating future costs associated with emission levies and taxation.

Pursuing “purity” in a digital age

Beyond the imperative to curb carbon emissions through advancements in raw material procurement and manufacturing processes, businesses are turning to digitalization—melding technological solutions with novel operational strategies to fulfill their ecological aspirations. For instance, automating the integration of disparate data systems enhances the efficiency of mining permits and environmental planning.

Along the value chain, from raw material to finished product, the demand for “purity” is escalating. This demands a burgeoning dataset, requiring digital traceability systems to ensure sustainability credentials. Moreover, all this data must be managed with a minimal carbon footprint.

The application of space technology is becoming increasingly commonplace in supporting traceability and supply chain optimization. The European Space Agency (ESA) is embarking on the construction of a digital twin of Earth, with the aim of refining global food management systems.

The technology sector is set to play a pivotal role in facilitating this transition, providing the mining industry with the tools to reinvent for a sustainable future. The journey from reactive to predictive operations in mining will necessitate collaborative efforts, and to produce genuinely carbon-free products, all players in the ecosystem must adhere to the principles of cleanliness.

This article was originally posted in Tomorrow’s Affairs.

While advocating for systemic change over 4 decades, Gordon Feller has been called upon to help leaders running some of the world’s major organizations: World Bank, UN, World Economic Forum, Lockheed, Apple, IBM, Ford, the national governments of Germany, Canada, US – to name a few. With 40 years in Silicon Valley, Feller’s 300+ published articles cover the full spectrum of energy/environment/technology issues, reporting from more than 40 countries. Obama/Biden appointee to Federal comm. on innovation; Global Fellow at The Smithsonian; Winner: Prime Minister Abe Fellowship, Japan.