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Rio Tinto Faces Scrutiny Over Environmental Practices at AGM

Investors Demand Transparency on Water Management, Biodiversity

by Victor Adetimilehin

Rio Tinto, a major mining company, faced pressure from shareholders at its annual meeting in London on Thursday. Investors demanded greater transparency on the company’s environmental practices, particularly concerning water management and biodiversity.

ESG Concerns Amidst Decarbonization Push

While Rio Tinto boasts its commitment to achieving “impeccable ESG credentials,” shareholders raised concerns about the environmental impact of the company’s mining operations. This comes as Rio Tinto pushes for decarbonization, aiming to reduce its carbon emissions by 50% by the end of the decade. Mining itself is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for an estimated 4% to 7% of global emissions in 2020. However, the minerals extracted through mining are also seen as critical for the energy transition, being used in electric vehicles and renewable energy infrastructure. This creates a complex situation for Rio Tinto, where they are under pressure to both reduce their environmental footprint and supply the materials needed for a greener future.

Water Woes in Madagascar and Mongolia

Investors specifically questioned Rio Tinto about its water management practices at the QIT Madagascar Minerals mine in Madagascar. The mine released water into the surrounding environment in 2022 following heavy rainfall, leading to fish deaths. An independent report commissioned by Rio Tinto to investigate the incident was inconclusive, failing to find a direct link between heavy metal contamination and the fish deaths. However, this hasn’t quelled concerns among investors, with some questioning the transparency of the investigation.

Shareholders also expressed concerns about water management at the Oyu Tolgoi copper mine in Mongolia. A group representing UK pension funds had previously raised concerns about Rio Tinto’s water stewardship at these locations. In February 2024, Reuters reported on these concerns, highlighting the importance of water management for Rio Tinto’s host communities.

Focus on Biodiversity and Responsible Mining

The meeting also highlighted the potential impact of mining on biodiversity. A recent study published in February 2024 by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research suggests that Rio Tinto’s Simandou project in Guinea could threaten nearly 180,000 chimpanzees. The study estimates that more than one-third of the entire ape population in Africa is at risk due to habitat loss caused by mining activities, with deforestation of tropical rainforests being a major concern.

While Rio Tinto acknowledged the importance of water to its host communities and pledged commitment to effective water stewardship, some shareholders remain skeptical. The company highlighted its efforts to engage with civil society organizations, but concerns linger regarding transparency and accountability. Investors pointed to a letter sent to Rio Tinto by UK law firm Leigh Day in April 2024, where residents from the QIT Madagascar mine region alleged that the waterways and lakes still contained high levels of uranium and lead.

Looking Ahead: Balancing Environmental and Economic Needs

The pressure on Rio Tinto reflects the growing scrutiny that mining companies face over their environmental practices. Investors are increasingly demanding transparency and accountability on ESG issues, and regulators are implementing stricter environmental regulations. Rio Tinto’s commitment to decarbonization is a positive step, but the company needs to do more to address concerns about water management and biodiversity.

Finding a way to balance environmental and economic needs is crucial for Rio Tinto’s future. The company has the potential to play a vital role in the energy transition by supplying critical minerals. However, this can only be achieved if it can operate sustainably and responsibly. Rio Tinto’s response to the concerns raised by its investors will be closely watched in the coming months and years.

Source: Mining.com

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