Rio Tinto sets 2050 net-zero goal – but excludes Scope 3 emissions

Under the commitment

Announced at the company’s full-year results meeting this week, the new 2050 target covers Rio Tinto’s Scope 1 (direct) and Scope 2 (power-related) emissions on a global basis.

The firm is notably the world’s biggest miner. Although it does not extract coal or oil, it has an extensive global portfolio of large mineral mines largely concentrated in Canada, Australia and Spain.

The new 2050 target is bolstered with interim aims to reduce emissions intensity per tonne of material produced by 30% by 2030 and to reduce absolute emissions by 15% by 2030. Both goals are set against a 2018 baseline and Rio Tinto believes that meeting them will require all business expansions to be carbon-neutral from the outset.

Rio Tinto has vowed to back progress towards its 2030 and 2050 aims with $1bn of “climate-related spending” through to the end of 2025.

It has not yet disclosed how, precisely, the funding will be split, between, for example, operational decarbonisation and the purchase of carbon credits for offsetting.  

However, chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques said at the meeting that buying carbon offsets would only be a “last port of call” after internal decarbonisation.

Rio Tinto’s plan for delivering internal decarbonisation includes deploying onsite wind and solar to decarbonise electricity; investing in battery storage; electrifying heavy vehicles and equipment at mines; creating circular water-use systems and developing circular economy systems for tailings – the waste materials left over after materials are purified.

Upscaling ELYSIS – an innovative process which claims to eliminate all emissions from aluminium smelting through electrolysis – is also included.

But the plan does not include Scope 3 (indirect) emissions produced by its customers – a point of contention for green campaigners.

Jacques has stood by the decision to exclude Scope 3 emissions from the plan’s remit, given that it is stronger than the Australian Government’s own climate targets. Ministers have repeatedly thrown out motions for the nation to set a legally binding net-zero target for 2050, first put forward by the Labor opposition in the wake of the IPCC’s special report on global warming.

Jacques emphasised that Rio Tinto’s internal decarbonisation framework has reduced the firm’s carbon intensity by 46% since 2008. But a look through its previous annual reports reveals that much of this reduction was due to selling highly emitting operations.

Salting the mine?

The announcement from Rio Tinto comes in the same week as a new report warning that many of the world’s largest mining companies are choosing to omit mentions of their negative environmental and social impacts from their annual report, highlighting and overstating positive impacts instead.

Produced by the Responsible Mining Initiative (RMI), the report analysed 38 of the world’s biggest listed mining firms – including Rio Tinto – and found that most were highlighting or overstating their positive SDG contributions in their annual reporting. The Initiative also tracked a trend among assessed companies of failing to report negative impacts towards the SDGs.

Other mining firms listed in the report with climate targets that purport to be Paris-Aligned include BHP and Glencore.

Sarah George

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