Society's transition to sustainable development provides the mining and metals industry with a strategic opportunity to re-position itself as part of the solution to the challenges of the future.
The definition of sustainable development is variously interpreted, but the concept is that we should meet our present-day needs without compromising the ability of future generations to provide for theirs. It sets up a framework for integrating economic progress, environmental protection and social development.
That part of the economy not underpinned by mineral resources depends on the productivity of six major ecological systems: croplands, rangelands, forestlands, freshwaters, the atmosphere and the oceans.
If the productivity of those systems is degraded by over-exploitation or pollution, the productivity of the global economy is reduced.
Mining uses a relatively small area to provide useful economic and social benefits over the long term. Furthermore, replacing the goods and services provided by mining with goods and services of biological origin, where this is feasible, could do much more harm to the environment than making use of minerals.
Making the transition to sustainable development is the task of delivering rising real incomes and a better quality of life to twice the current population without further degrading those support systems. Given the rapid increase in population, no sustainable path to the future can take place without economic development. And compared with most other resource or industrial sectors, mining can add more value in a trade-off with environmental impact.
Undeniably, our projects can have negative as well as positive consequences, and there are inevitably conflicts between and within economic, social and environmental objectives that require an understanding of the complex trade-offs between them, in order to identify a way of delivering development in the most sustainable way.
In the developing regions of the world, the priority is to alleviate poverty. Few industries offer as good an opportunity as the minerals sector for increasing incomes rapidly and transferring skills and technology.
The industry has a strong case to make for playing a central role in the move to sustainable development. Yet it is also true that the field of sustainable development is richer in theorists than in practitioners.
Like most other industries, mining is only at the start of the learning curve.
The learning requirements make sustainable development a journey rather than a destination. Systematic learning needs to take place at all levels of an organisation. Much, of course, is already being done through existing social, environmental and economic programmes; the challenge is to integrate these to evolve new patterns of managing businesses.
Rio Tinto sees better understanding of sustainable development as a means of creating value by minimising risk, maintaining market access and working with host communities.
We have taken a leadership role in the Global Mining Initiative (GMI), an industry programme that seeks to identify how mining can make a positive contribution to the global transition to sustainable development. The GMI is about change. It was started by a group of companies that agreed that sustainable development should be the basis for re-examining the industry's future.
It encompasses the Mining Minerals and Sustainable Development (MMSD) project, an independently conducted, stakeholder-engaged analysis of the issues facing the industry. The GMI is holding a conference in May 2002 in Toronto, Canada, on mining and sustainable development.
This will involve leaders of industry, government and environmental and social groups in developing pathways and options for the future, based on the MMSD analysis.
A third component of the GMI is the establishment in London of a global industry body to provide leadership on scientific and policy matters, maintain dialogue with stakeholders and promote best-practice performance standards using sustainable development principles.
Rio Tinto is building the case for sustainable development within the group by gaining a clearer understanding of current performance and identifying areas for improvement. Its businesses are being asked to define what sustainable development means to them - what are the implications, risks and opportunities; to engage with stakeholders and examine what measures, targets and reporting requirements are appropriate; to include sustainable development principles in planning and decision-making; and to investigate how social, environmental, economic and governance issues can be integrated.
The underlying need is to find ways of changing embedded practices and attitudes, and developing capacity throughout the group to respond to challenges in a way that turns the sustainable development programme into a business advantage rather than a business cost.
The move to sustainable development promises to build fresh relationships between the mining, minerals and metals industry, its stakeholders and its critics. As a leading participant, Rio Tinto welcomes this change and is pleased to be part of it.