Top miners continue to make progress on a range of ESG, climate change and license to operate risks but are under pressure to do even more.
This year’s ranking highlights the complex operating environment miners will face in 2024. Challenges will be numerous but history proves the resilience and the inventiveness of this sector. We expect to see more innovation, collaboration and agility over the next 12 months as mining and metals companies embrace the upside of change. At first glance, the 2024 ranking of the top business risks and opportunities in mining and metals doesn’t differ too much from the last couple of years. But while some issues are clearly becoming long-term priorities — particularly ESG and license to operate — others reflect new challenges in the sector.
We see a number of key themes playing out:
Expectations of investors and stakeholders have been underestimated and continue to increase
According to our survey respondents, scrutiny from all stakeholder groups is increasing, particularly around ESG issues. With these expectations anticipated to continue, miners will need to balance ESG priorities with other business goals, including productivity. Many are focused on achieving net- positive impact across a number of ESG factors, with significant benefits for those that get it right, including improved access to capital, a healthier talent pipeline and stronger license to operate [LTO].
The pace of change has accelerated
Capital has moved up in the ranking as the sector competes for investment and incentives to accelerate exploration and development of minerals and metals vital to the energy transition. We’re seeing a shift from a short-term focus on returns to a long-term view of value, encouraged by recognition that longer-term investment horizons are required to meet 2050 net-zero goals.
Inflationary pressure has fast-tracked technology development, as miners focus on digital tools that can accelerate productivity. The pace of digital transformation is highlighting the importance of cybersecurity, which is new to the ranking this year. Supply constraints are a catalyst for consideration of circular economy principles, with miners more conscious of minimizing waste.
Risks today are highly complex, interlinked and impact each other
Executives say they have a better understanding of sustainability issues — but that they cannot tackle all areas at once. With ESG becoming more complex and interlinked, addressing them requires an approach that thinks beyond meeting regulation and controlling costs. Instead, leaders need assurance that investments in one area will add genuine value rather than cause problems elsewhere. In-depth scenario planning can help guide prioritization, identify potential trade-offs and help miners create real, long-term positive impact.
Building trust and articulating value can evolve the sector’s brand
When trust is an issue, transparency is key. Miners need to get better at articulating the nonfinancial value they bring to communities and investors, beyond merely meeting regulatory expectations. Creating and communicating a bigger bolder vision of legacy beyond life of mine can demonstrate a company’s societal commitment.
Analysis: Top 10 risks and opportunities
1. Environmental, social and governance (ESG)
Many of the ESG risks raised in our survey this year are not new, but what is changing is a growing degree of both complexity and investor attention. We believe this will spur more innovation, more ambitious targets and greater transparency in reporting.
Much of the challenge of ESG is the diversity of risks and opportunities at play. Companies are grappling with issues ranging from water stewardship to ethical supply chains and mine closure — all while trying to navigate what respondents describe as an “alphabet soup” of regulations and with ongoing data integrity challenges. Forty-one percent of miners surveyed said their digital priority was a platform to track and report ESG metrics. To avoid disclosure missteps and make the best use of resources, miners will need a better view of high-quality ESG data, with strong governance and controls in place to ensure appropriate sign-offs and processes.
The race is on to secure the huge investment in mining and metals required to meet growing demand for the minerals and metals critical to the energy transition, including copper, lithium and nickel. Markets are responding, but, as at 31 July 2023, capital raised through debt and equity this year has remained steady (US$178b compared with US$183b in the same period of 2022). It appears, therefore, that capital is moving to new commodity markets rather than solving what is already a significant risk.
Iron and steel, gold, and coal companies continue to attract the most capital, but investment is increasing in nickel and lithium. Exploration budgets are on the rise, with the US, Canada and Australia the preferred destinations, due to their low risk rating.
Across the sector, companies continuing capital discipline is reaping rewards — average shareholder returns by the top 30 miners have increased by CAGR of 22% over 2019 to 2022. However, miners will need to balance continued economic returns with more investment in digital, decarbonization and ESG. And as difficult decisions are made, bringing investors along on the journey will be critical.
Expectations of companies are growing, with people demanding they do more for the communities in which they operate. Sixty-four percent of survey respondents said community impact was the top ESG issue facing scrutiny from investors in 2024. Executives say their understanding of sustainability-related matters has increased significantly over the years — but now they realize they cannot tackle all matters at once. The big question is what to prioritize to create real and lasting impact. “License to operate is increasingly challenging, with a broadening range of stakeholders and issues — creating a long-term focus on value beyond life of mine and working with communities to co-develop solutions is key,” says Paul Mitchell, EY Global Mining & Metals Leader.
Actively engaging with communities to first understand, and then deliver, the value they need can help prioritize actions. Anecdotally, the miners with open, close communication with community leaders have more highly engaged employees and fewer strikes.
4. Climate change
Climate change is a complex issue for miners: They must both provide minerals for the energy transition, while also reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Net-zero initiatives are progressing across the sector, though some survey respondents admitted challenges in meeting interim targets. Many miners are forming ecosystems and partnerships to develop the technological innovation that can fast-track decarbonization. Government support and the falling cost of renewables are driving growth in renewable energy contracts and investment in solar or wind generation. Many miners are sourcing green electricity to decarbonize Scope 2 GHG emissions but find it hard to get green energy at scale.
Miners must also prepare and provision for the growing impact of climatic events on day-to-day productivity and health and safety. One Canadian miner affected by recent bushfires told us they are considering better preparations for future events: “We are asking, ‘Do we allocate two-day stoppages per annum to cater for climate change?’ It might not be a bad idea going forward.”
5. Digital and innovation
Leaders anticipate a surge of investment in data and technology, driven by demand across the business for digital solutions to reduce costs and improve productivity, safety and ESG outcomes. Survey respondents are excited by the potential of generative AI and are exploring other new technologies, particularly those that can optimize mineral recovery. Many are seeking greater collaboration and partnerships to help speed up transformation and drive innovation in the sector.
Miners are data rich, but many struggle to manage and capture insights from this wealth of information. And many lack an integrated approach to technology implementation, limiting the value it can bring to the business. As one CIO said, “As CIOs, we need to fall in love with the problem, not the solution. We need to put ourselves in the operator’s shoes, to truly understand their real situation, and be able to transform various aspects of their routine.” Technology adoption, and its success, differs between miners, with our research revealing that organizations that champion new technology at an operational level do best.
6. Costs and productivity
Inflation is easing but costs remain high, particularly energy and labor. Until recently, higher commodity prices have supported margins, but these now sit closer to 2019 figures, and we are seeing some evidence of stress.
Higher interest rates, the cost of decarbonization programs and more carbon pricing schemes are also having an impact. Costs need to be managed with an eye on long-term value, as well as short-term gains.
The sector still lacks a systemic approach to tackling the problem, instead opting for locally optimized point solutions that tend to diminish productivity elsewhere. An end-to-end solution centered around people and powered by technology can help miners identify and tackle pain points across the value chain.
The race for minerals and metals required for the energy transition has driven a range of new range of government incentives and restrictions. As countries move to incentivize local investment, including through the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the EU Critical Minerals Act, miners will need to be agile enough to take advantage of new opportunities while managing the risk of government intervention. Resource nationalization and more taxes, royalties and restrictions mean miners should expect tougher operating conditions in some countries.
Cyber is back on the ranking for the first time since 2020. Growing information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) convergence, digital transformation and remote working, as well as the war in Ukraine, have seen cyber incidents skyrocket.
Today, all mining organizations are digital by default, operating in a vast, connected digital landscape where every asset represents another node in the network and increases the attack surface. A recent EY survey found 74% of mining and metals executives said integrating technology is a key challenge, compared with 37% for all sectors.
More mining leaders are worried about cyber attacks that target intellectual property, a concern we expect to increase as investment in ESG initiatives ramps up. Keeping on top of these and other risks demands greater attention from the board — but only 40% of boards in the EY Global Board Risk Survey 2023 are confident they understand the biggest cyber risks facing the organization. “Understanding the current cyber risk landscape and the threats new technologies bring is critical for planning reliable and resilient operations,” says Mitchell.
9. New business models
Miners face the growing challenge of needing to invest in and adapt their business models, while maintaining discipline and returns. EY analysis shows most are focusing on traditional or core activities such as exploration, mining and processing to ensure returns remain strong and can fund investments in sustainability, technology and new business models.
Sustainability is a big driver of innovation. Green minerals are the future of the business, according to many executives we surveyed. Companies are also investing in startups, including in energy storage, batteries and hydrogen, and making progress in adopting circular economy principles.
Talent recruitment and retention continues to be a major challenge for mining and metals companies. Miners are deploying a range of solutions, including upskilling internal candidates as well as considering digital solutions. Developing attractive career pathways can help inspire workers to see their future in mining, and improve retention rates. Building a stronger work culture and brand, including highlighting mining’s role in the energy transition, can also help.
Bullying and harassment claims are on the rise in mining workplaces. Miners still need to consider the issue as more than a legal risk — companies that create a safe, inclusive workplace will gain a competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining staff.