King Ferdinand of Spain from the 16th century sent his people abroad with the order: “Get gold, humanely if possible, but at all hazards, get gold.” His statement is true today. Gold remains one of the most expensive substances in the world, but mining is one of the most environmentally and socially destructive processes on the planet.
About 7% of the gold bought worldwide each year is used for industry, technology or medicine. The rest ends up in bank vaults and jewelery shops.
Beautiful objects and stable investments are worth creating and holding, and often have significant cultural value. But neither can justify the enormous human and ecological toll of gold mining. In a recent study, my colleagues and I showed how mining could be phased out and instead rely entirely on recycled gold.
Despite improvements in gold mining practices over the past century and new regulations designed to limit the impact of mining, this industry continues to destroy landscapes on every continent except Antarctica.
In a given year, gold mines emit more greenhouse gases than all passenger flights between European nations combined. Gold mining also accounts for 38% of annual global mercury emissions, leaving millions of small-scale miners suffering from chronic mercury poisoning, which can cause debilitating illness, especially in children.
Our research involved modeling hypothetical scenarios where gold consumption could decrease to more sustainable levels. Using current recycling rates, we examined a fully circular gold economy in which the world’s entire gold supply came from recycled sources.
Even today, nearly a quarter of the annual demand for gold is supplied through recycling, making it one of the most recycled materials in the world. The recycling process uses no mercury and has less than 1% of the water and carbon footprint of gold mining.
We found that a global decline in gold mining does not necessarily affect any of the three core functions of gold in jewellery, technology or as an investment.
Our model showed that the gold used for industrial purposes (mainly in dentistry and smartphones) could be supplied for centuries even if all gold mining stopped tomorrow.
We also discovered that jewelery could still be produced with recycled gold in a fully circular gold industry. There would only be about 55% less to go around, which would still leave more than enough for essential uses.
To realize this future, investors would have to limit their trade to existing reserves, not add newly mined gold to their coffers.
Consumers would likely pay more for the same 24-karat pure gold ring because of a world with a reduced supply of gold. But it is likely that jewelery purchases will shift to cheaper (and more durable) gold alloys that are already popular. And in the future, demand for gold may decline as consumers become more concerned about making sustainable choices.
The investment role of gold in the global economy would likely continue to function regardless of extraction. Like Renaissance art, gold is valuable precisely because it is scarce. An end to gold mining would not end the buying and selling of gold for bank vaults. Instead, it would make existing gold stocks more valuable.
Regardless of whether the world needs gold, our research suggests that the world does not need gold mining.
Private investors and central banks may balk at this idea. The US government, for example, is the world’s largest single owner of gold, with US$11 (9.1) billion in reserves. But transitions to sustainability are always difficult and the gold industry is no exception.
Inspired by other transitions
Like gold, the extraction of fossil fuels also damages the environment. But unlike gold, fossil fuels provide heat and electricity for homes and businesses, power for vehicles and fertilizers for farms. Transitioning from this resource required research and investment in clean energy technologies.
In contrast, finding gold substitutes requires no research. Jewelery can be made more sustainable by blending gold with other metals. Investors can rely on existing gold stocks and diversify into other stable assets. And the technology can continue to use recycled gold where appropriate.
The first step is to close gold mines. But many regions have grown dependent on gold mining, and artisanal mining alone supports up to 19 million miners and their families worldwide, mostly in developing economies.
These miners deserve a fair transition that ensures they do not suffer collateral damage in the transition to sustainability. Governments must provide a strong safety net for former gold miners and their families. This includes offering low-cost training and retraining to ensure miners can find employment in more sustainable industries.
Steps towards sustainability
It will take time to responsibly pull down gold extraction. But there are a number of measures available to start the transition today.
On the industry demand side, major jewelery brands, including Pandora, have already pledged to use only recycled gold by 2025. Global technology firm Apple has recently set a target to use recycled materials to exclusive use by 2030.
On the supply side, mining companies should start abandoning mines that produce only gold. Many copper mines produce gold as a by-product, and this is likely to continue in the future.
Meanwhile, institutional investors should stop investing in new gold mines. That includes groups like the World Bank, which have invested US$800 (£660) million in gold mines in Africa, Asia, South America and the Pacific Islands since 2010.
Justice-minded fund managers, such as those who oversee endowments, should add gold mining firms along with coal producers to their divestment lists. And central banks should redirect their future investments towards other stable stores of value, or at least source exclusively recycled gold.
The world is full of difficult sustainability trade-offs. Gold mining is not one of them. Pulling down this industry stands out as a relatively easy way to reduce humanity’s footprint on a fragile planet.
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Stephen Lezak is a Gates Scholar at Cambridge University’s Department of Geography and a researcher at Oxford Smith University’s School of Enterprise and the Environment.