Coal Forum 2023 panel: decarbonisation in real time in Australia

At this year’s Coal and the Future of Energy Forum in Brisbane, panellists Bob Mckerrow (Thiess), Erik Isokangas (Mining3) and Rory Simington (Wood Mackenzie) discussed the challenges of decarbonisation within the mining industry. We break down some of our biggest takeaways.

4 minute read

Australia is a major player in global mining, but its mining industry must decarbonise to meet both environmental regulations and the more intangible licence to operate. Updates to the Australian government’s Safeguard Mechanism (SGM) require mining facilities to cut their emissions by 4.9% each year. Those who don’t cut their emissions will be obliged to purchase Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs), with prices set to rise up to US$75 per tonne CO2-e. 

This is a significant financial challenge for the mining industry, but it is also an opportunity to invest in new technologies and practices that can help to reduce emissions and could come with their own financial rewards.  

A recent panel discussion at the 2023 Coal and the Future of Energy Forum in Brisbane revealed the intricacies of these challenges and opportunities. Read on for a summary of the key takeaways, or fill out the form on the right to watch the full session, with panellists Bob Mckerrow (Senior Executive, Thiess), Erik Isokangas (Research Director, Mining3) and Rory Simington (Principal Analyst, Wood Mackenzie), in conversation with moderator Robin Griffin (Vice President, SME M&M Markets, Wood Mackenzie).  

Decarbonising mining equipment  

Decarbonising mining equipment will play a significant role in the industry’s sustainability efforts.  

Mining equipment can last for up to 15 years, meaning companies will need to decide whether to retrofit or replace them with more sustainable technologies. Mining service contracts tend to be shorter than the lifespan of mining equipment, which can also impact decarbonisation plans.  

The panel’s discussion revealed that as the industry moves towards a site-by-site approach to decarbonisation, contracting companies will need to reconsider their investments in mining equipment. Currently, they can purchase equipment that they know will be usable across several shorter-term contracts. However, if individual sites have different equipment requirements, knowing which long-term equipment investments to make becomes a challenge. 

Tackling trucks 

The panel discussed in depth one of the mining industry’s biggest carbon offenders - its trucks. The discussion revolved around several technologies, each with their own challenges and benefits.  

Battery electric trucks emerged as a promising solution, given their ability to reduce emissions and, in some cases, operational costs. However, recharging infrastructure and battery weight are currently barriers to mainstream use.  

Hydrogen fuel cell technology was another contender, with its potential to significantly cut carbon emissions. However, as a developing technology, it has extensive capital costs, as well as meticulous maintenance requirements. It’s important to weigh these factors against energy needs, deposit geometry and safety considerations. 

Underground mines 

While Australian coal mines are typically subject to the same laws and levies within their state borders, not all mines face the same challenges when it comes to decarbonisation. Underground mines are more emissions-intensive due to fugitive methane which contribute over 90% of total emissions.  

Given underground mines’ higher rate of emissions than surface mines, it can mean that companies operating underground mines will face higher levies, particularly in Australia once the safeguard mechanism comes into effect this year.  

In addition, current technologies to decarbonise fugitive emissions – particularly ventilation air methane VAM) – are not mature enough to allow deep decarbonisation at underground mines.  

The panellists argue that the industry needs to find new ways to reduce emissions in underground mines, with more research and collaboration needed into renewable energy applications, cleaner machinery, and VAM technology approaches. 

Alternative explosives 

The current explosive of choice - ammonium nitrate - could be replaced in favour of hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide has been found to release fewer toxic fumes. Its production also has a lower carbon footprint, which would support supply chain decarbonisation. 


The mining industry’s autonomous capabilities still have some way to go, but automation could play a crucial role in decarbonisation.  

The panel discusses the potential to reduce the number of large, diesel-powered vehicles, as well as the opportunity to optimise autonomous vehicles’ routes, reducing fuel consumption.  

Challenges come in the form of reliable communication networks and technology investments, but the consensus is that the benefits outstrip the risks in this particular area. A transformation in the design of open cut mines – and their mobile equipment fleets – is likely as automation and emissions reduction goals incentivise larger fleets of smaller, lighter haul trucks.  

Final thoughts 

The Australian mining industry is at a critical juncture. The pressure to decarbonise is increasing, but the barriers to do so are significant. The panel discussion at the 2023 Coal and the Future of Energy Forum in Brisbane highlighted the need for collaboration between industry, government, and research institutions to accelerate the development and deployment of new technologies and practices. 

The panel identified some specific priorities that the mining industry can take to decarbonise, including: 

  • Improving the energy efficiency of mining equipment and processes 
  • Investing in developing technologies, such as battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell trucks, as well as mobile recharging technologies. 
  • Supporting research and development into new decarbonisation technologies 

Watch the full discussion  

For more key insights, complete the form at the top of this page to unlock free access to the entire panel discussion.