Large-scale renewable uptake to help Rio Tinto’s brand rebuild


Mining giant Rio Tinto has used its investor day to try and revive the company's declining reputation, stock price and executive workforce. The big news was the company's raised ambitions in emissions reduction. It unveiled a new target to reduce its Scope 1 & 2 carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, an apparent tripling of its previous target. 

The pathway 

To achieve this new target, the miner is now targeting a 15% emissions reduction by 2025 (from a 2018 baseline of 32.6 Mt [CO2 equivalent – equity basis]), and will directly invest approximately $7.5 billion toward its emissions reduction between 2022-2030. 

This investment will partially go to the continued development of carbon-free aluminium technology Elysis and “pathways to produce green steel” which mean “a focus on renewable power for iron ore in the Pilbara and for the Australian aluminum smelters, including $0.5 billion per year from 2022 to 2024.”  

Rio Tinto chief executive Jakob Stausholm, who has been in the top job since January in the wake of outcry in response to the company's destruction of two 46,000-year-old sacred Indigenous sites in Western Australia last year, said “Rio Tinto is taking action to strengthen our business and improve our performance by unleashing the full potential of our people and assets, working in partnership with a broad range of stakeholders.”

Stausholm said that all of Rio Tinto's commodities are “vital for the energy transition and continue to benefit from ongoing urbanization.” We have a clear pathway to decarbonize our business and are actively developing technologies that will enable our customers and our customers' customers to decarbonize.” 

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However, this strategic ‘pathway' might not be as clear as Stausholm makes out. According to the Financial Times, Rio Tinto's head of strategy and development resigned yesterday, on the eve of the company's investor day. Peter Toth is the second senior executive to leave the mining giant since Jakob Stausholm was appointed chief executive in January. According to a company statement Toth “has accepted a new position outside of Rio Tinto.” 

An Australian parliamentary report was published this week in response to the Juukan Gorge site destruction which called for an overhaul of the nation's cultural heritage laws which could allow indigenous groups to launch legal action against mining companies. In a statement, Rio Tinto welcomed the final report of the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia following its inquiry into the destruction of rock shelters at Juukan Gorge on the land of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikiura people (PKKP) in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

“We have been working hard to rebuild trust and meaningful relationships with the PKKP people and other Traditional Owners,” said Stausholm. “Rio Tinto is absolutely committed to listening, learning and showing greater care, and this remains a top priority.” Of course, Traditional Owners need a lot more than just words from mining corporations like Rio Tinto, and meaningful change is still yet to materialize.

Renewables deployment 

The above mentioned renewables uptake at Rio Tinto's Pilbara sites is expected to include “the rapid deployment of 1 GW of wind and solar power.” This would replace the natural gas power plant currently in use and see the electrification of mining equipment while abating “around 1 million tons of CO2“.

However, the company said the full electrification of its Pilbara system, “including all trucks, mobile equipment and rail operations, will require further gigawatt-scale renewable deployment and advances in fleet technologies.” 

The miner also says it is investigating whether there are biomass and hydrogen pathways to green its steelmaking. 

However, the big renewables news from the investor day was from Rio Tinto's aluminum business, which will switch the Boyne Island and Tomago smelters (in Gladstone, Queensland, and the NSW Hunter Valley respectively), to solar and wind energy. Rio Tinto is estimating the job to transition the smelters will require around 5 GW of renewables. 

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