The multi-national mining company Anglo-American intends to slowly move away from thermal coal as part of its “just transition”. It says it will engage in incremental expansion in viable projects but not in long-term growth of new assets. Thermal coal is a form of coal burned to generate electricity. It is a fossil fuel and contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
The company, which is a major producer of diamonds, copper, nickel, iron ore and metallurgical and thermal coal, has halved its footprint from thermal coal in the past five years. Currently, it exports 30-million tonnes of export thermal coal annually, mainly from South Africa. In 2017, the company generated $28.9 billion in revenue and $4.06 in profit.
In its public climate plans, the company says it sees climate change as a defining issue of our era and acknowledges it has climate responsibilities. According to its internal assessments, thermal coal can still play a role in the world’s energy matrix whilst keeping global temperatures under 2°C, largely facilitated by the expansion of low-carbon energy and the deployment of carbon capture storage technologies. Nonetheless, it foresees fossil fuels becoming increasingly contested by society, and intends to withdraw gradually while emphasising its role in building a low-carbon economy, particularly by mining key materials for electrical energy, such as copper.
Is this a sign that coal is becoming an energy of the past? Is Anglo-American’s decision an admirable climate commitment or a mere response to market forces: is it driving or reacting to change?
More widely, what public relations issues will mining companies face in a decarbonising, warming world, and how will they navigate the challenges these pose?