Five minutes with Dr Eleonore Lebre
The AusIMM Bulletin sat down with Dr Eleonore Lebre, Research Fellow at The University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute (SMI) to get her insights on topical issues such as the circular economy and mining waste.
Can you please tell us a bit about your own career background – what was your pathway into your current researcher role?
Back in France I went through the competitive exams to enter generalist engineering schools. I took the opportunity to complete my engineering studies abroad, and I embarked on an international Master’s program in Norway. The program was in the field of industrial ecology, which is a new and vibrant research field aiming to tackle planetary scale issues including climate change, resource depletion, and sustainable development. There I met researchers from many different nationalities working together on multi-disciplinary projects.
It was my experience in Norway that convinced me to pursue a career in research. I quickly found a PhD opportunity at SMI, where I applied what I had learnt during my Masters to the issue of mining waste. During my PhD I grew more and more interested in the mining sector, and particularly the social aspects, and therefore chose to deepen my expertise in this area and stay at the SMI after my PhD.
Your PhD explored the concept of the circular economy and mining waste, looking at minimising waste and optimising resource extraction. With the idea of the circular economy picking up momentum in the industry, why is this such an important topic to be discussing today?
Mineral extraction is predicted to intensify as more minerals and metals are needed to make electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels, and other low-carbon energy technologies. We need mining to mitigate climate change, while at the same time making sure that mining activities do not generate extensive damage to the local environment.
While I was doing my PhD, I realised that the mining sector was often excluded from circular economy debates altogether, which is a shame because the sector can highly benefit from this concept. Waste management is one of the biggest environmental challenges in mining. Minimising waste equals to minimising a mine site’s environmental footprint. Optimising resource extraction also means that more can be extracted from one site, which reduces the need to open new mines elsewhere.
Finding circular economy solutions in the mining industry is particularly important now if we want to ensure that the minerals critical to the energy transition are sourced sustainably.
What are you currently researching? Are you collaborating with other researchers and teams?
The general idea behind my current work is that each mining project is located within a specific social, cultural, economic, political, regulatory and environmental context. This host context has a unique combination of environmental, social and governance (ESG) characteristics, such as the level of remoteness, the availability of freshwater resources, the proximity to pre-existing land uses, the presence of vulnerable community groups, the quality of the regulatory environment or the political stability within the country. These characteristics, when combined, can represent factors of risk and complexity for the developer.
The aim of my project was to model these characteristics at a global scale using a selection of spatial indicators and indexes. We used a global commercial database which gave us the precise location for about 36,000 mining projects at various development stages, and we analysed the ESG context of different commodities.
This multi-disciplinary research project involved collaborations across the SMI’s production, environmental and social centres. We also engaged externally with research teams in the US, Europe, Japan, and Latin America, and asked them to comment on our work and contribute to this research topic in a special issue of a scientific journal. An important output of this special issue will be to collectively identify avenues for future research.
As far as I am concerned, the next step in my research will be to qualitatively analyse what companies are disclosing about their interactions with the ESG context. I am looking forward to exploring this new type of data.
How do researchers work closely with industry to apply their findings to projects and mine sites?
At the SMI researchers are involved in a variety of industry-commissioned projects that are carefully designed to both service the industry and advance the academic research agenda. Some projects have only one industry partner, but we also work in research consortia where several companies can contribute and learn from each other. We also deliver professional development courses and workshops, where we often include some of our latest research findings.
At SMI, researchers provide expert advice while at the same time learning from their industry partners’ experience. This arrangement ensures researchers stay up to date with the latest industry challenges and that research findings are relevant to contemporary practice. The SMI is positioned at the interface between industry and academia, which probably is the best place for researchers to work if they want to have an impact. We also aim to have a diverse funding structure as it is important to get insights from outside the industry too.
In your work, what global ESG trends have you identified?
The first trend I want to highlight is the global rise in responsible investing that use ESG data to measure a company’s performance. The mining industry is facing increased scrutiny to demonstrate good ESG practices. We found that the industry’s response to this new demand from investors varies a lot from one company to another. When it comes to ESG, mining protagonists are positioning themselves within the innovation adoption curve, some as innovators and early adopters, and others appearing to take steps in the opposite direction and becoming the sector’s laggards. It will be interesting to see which strategy pays off.
The second important trend is geopolitical risk reaching a new level with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the realisation that China controls most of the supply of minerals needed for the global energy transition. As a result, large consumer countries like the US are seeking to onshore mineral extraction or source their minerals from jurisdictions like Australia and Canada. I think it is an opportunity for Australia to position itself as a responsible mining leader, but it also means the Australian mining sector will need to demonstrate it is managing its own ESG complexities in an effective way.
What do you think is the number one challenge facing the current sector from an ESG perspective? How might this challenge be addressed?
That’s a hard question. To me all ESG dimensions are important and need to be treated equally, which is not necessarily the case. It appears that decarbonisation is gaining momentum, with many companies setting targets to achieve this goal. I am concerned that other dimensions like social performance may not be receiving as much attention, perhaps because in this area quantitative targets are hard to define. The “S” in ESG may be the hardest dimension to incorporate as part of core business at the level of practice.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is how to effectively integrate all ESG dimensions into core business, and silos are the main barrier. Social performance and community relations require continuity and consistency throughout the life of mine, from exploration to closure and post-closure. However, maintaining continuity is challenging for an industry that operates in a highly variable and uncertain business environment. Failure to maintain good relationships with local communities and other stakeholders can have severe consequences, including reputational damage, production disruption, license removal, and violent conflict. The sector should keep investing effort and resources to build social management capability.
How can we encourage more young people into research careers in the resources sector? Do you have any words of advice for those looking to pursue their own research career?
Unfortunately, it seems the younger generation does not have much interest in the resources sector altogether. I think young people may not realise the breadth and diversity of disciplines involved in mining and how complex and fascinating this industry is. They may not realise how much impact they could make by working within this sector. Mining companies are in need of smart and passionate young people who want to make the world a better place and can think critically about solving the industry's biggest sustainability challenges.
The best advice I can give to anyone really is to remain curious. This advice is particularly relevant when embarking on a research career, because the ultimate purpose of research is to generate knowledge, and how can you generate new knowledge if you think you have already understood everything?