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Last updated: 13 March 2024

Environmental Cost of Gold Mining: A Global Perspective

Gold mining has significant negative impacts on the environment. It can contaminate drinking water, destroy pristine environments, and endanger the health of people and ecosystems. The process involves using toxic substances such as mercury and cyanide, which can pollute water and land. For instance, producing gold for one wedding ring alone generates 20 tons of waste

The environmental impact of gold mining

Yes, gold mining is indeed harmful to the environment. It is considered one of the most destructive industries in the world due to its significant environmental impacts. 

Gold mining is a global business with operations on every continent except Antarctica. China was the largest producer in the world in 2022, accounting for around 10% of total global production. In 2021, China’s gold mine production accounted for more than 12% of the worldwide mine production.

The global gold industry’s carbon footprint comprises 0.3% of global emissions, more than all intra-European emissions. 

Global gold production has grown exponentially since the 1800s, with 86% of all above-ground gold mined in the last 200 years. The best estimates suggest that around 208,874 tonnes of gold has been mined throughout history, of which around two-thirds have been mined since 1950. 

The environmental impacts of artisanal gold mining are also significant. The digging of extraction wells can lead to the weakening of lands by creating underground voids and cavities, while waste rock discharges and cyanide wastes from gold mining are often abandoned on the land

 NASA

This has significantly led to o deforestation and degradation of landscapes. It can cause soil erosion, water shortages, and destruction of ecosystems. The use of chemicals such as mercury and cyanide in artisanal and small-scale gold mining is a significant environmental issue.

While gold mining contributes to the global economy, it has significant environmental impacts. These include contamination of water and land, destruction of ecosystems, and contribution to global emissions.

What Do We Mean With Gold Mining Exactly?

Gold mining refers to the process of extracting gold from the earth. This extraction can occur in various ways, depending on the location and nature of the gold deposits.

The extracted gold ore is then processed and transformed into a metallic alloy of substantial purity, known as doré, which typically contains between 60-90% gold

Gold mining is a significant industry worldwide, with large corporations conducting most of the mining. However, the high value of gold has also led to the proliferation of small, artisanal miners, particularly in many parts of the Global South

It’s important to note that gold mining, like all mining activities, can have significant environmental and human rights implications. These can include habitat destruction, water pollution, and health and safety risks for workers, particularly in mines with less regulation. 

YearGlobal Gold Production (in tonnes)Top Gold Producing CountryTop Gold Mining Company
20203,200ChinaNewmont Corporation
20213,100AustraliaBarrick Gold Corporation
20223,000RussiaNewcrest Mining Ltd
20232,900United StatesAngloGold Ashanti

Environmental Impact of Gold Mining

Gold mining, while a lucrative industry, has significant environmental impacts that are often overlooked. Gold mining can have substantial environmental impacts. It can displace communities, contaminate drinking water, hurt workers, and destroy pristine environments. 

For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States estimates that abandoned hardrock mines have contributed to the contamination of 40% of the country’s rivers and 50% of all lakes. This has shown that mining has contributed to severe public health, safety, and environmental concerns. 

Let’s delve into the environmental repercussions of gold mining and the scale of its impact.

Total Impact per Year

The global gold mining industry has a staggering impact, producing an estimated 3,531 metric tons of gold annually. This equates to a market value of approximately £115 billion.

It generates approximately 180 million tonnes of toxic waste annually, often containing dangerous chemicals like arsenic, lead, mercury, and cyanide. 

Impact per Day

Daily, the gold mining industry extracts an average of 9.7 metric tons of gold, leading to extensive environmental disturbances.

The daily operations of gold mines can also result in the dredging of rivers and the displacement of large amounts of soil and rock, leading to water contamination and habitat destruction. For instance, the use of cyanide and mercury in gold mining can release these toxic substances into waterways daily, affecting aquatic life and human health. 

Impact per Usage

Gold is utilised in various industries, including electronics, jewellery, and aerospace. Its demand and subsequent environmental impact are substantial, with approximately 50% of the world’s gold supply being used in jewellery production alone.

Despite recycling efforts, the demand for gold far exceeds the amount recycled, which does little to offset the environmental damage caused by mining. 

Top Largest Gold Mining Economies

China is the world’s leading gold mining country, followed by Australia and Russia. Around 31% of the world’s production comes from these countries. 

According to the World Gold Council, China accounts for 11% of global gold production, while Australia and Russia account for 10%. 

The largest gold mining countries as of 2023, along with the number of tons generated, are as follows:

RankCountryGold Production (tons)
1China420
2Australia330
3Russia310
4United States200
5Canada180
6Indonesia160
7Peru130
8Ghana130
9Mexico110
10South Africa101
Data source: World Gold Council

The mining industry in these countries has driven economic growth and attracted substantial foreign investment. However, the price of gold is a crucial factor influencing mining activities. As of 2024, gold per ounce was valued at £1,585. The fluctuation in gold prices affects the profitability of mining operations and can lead to the exploitation of lower-grade ores when prices are high.

What is so bad about Gold Mining for the Environment

Gold mining has been identified as a significant source of environmental degradation. 

Gold mining can have devastating effects on nearby water resources, contaminating them with toxic mine waste that contains dangerous chemicals such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and cyanide. This pollution can endanger the health of people and ecosystems.

Earthworks, an Environmental Advocacy Group

Gold mining is detrimental to the environment due to:

  1. Water Pollution: Mining discharges can contaminate water sources with arsenic, lead, mercury, and cyanide.
  2. Deforestation: Large tracts of land are cleared for mining operations.
  3. Soil Erosion: The removal of vegetation and soil structure leads to erosion.
  4. Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Gold mines emitted, on average, 0.85 tonnes of CO2, equivalent to every ounce of gold produced.
  5. Mercury Pollution: Gold mining is a significant source of mercury pollution, which has severe health impacts.
Effect of gold mining on households

What is the Impact of Gold Mining?

Beyond the immediate environmental consequences, gold mining has broader social, economic, and geopolitical implications. 

It can create jobs, generate tax revenue, and attract foreign direct investment. The industry employs millions worldwide and was valued at around £100 billion in 2023. For instance, in 2020, World Gold Council (WGC) member companies directly paid £6.5 billion in employee wages and £5.7 billion in tax payments to governments. 

Local employees make up 95% of the WGC members’ in-country workforce, halving the average percentage of expats (from 10% to 5%) over the past seven years. 

Top 5 Largest Gold Mines

The top five largest gold mines in the world, based on their production, are:

  1. Nevada Gold Mines, US.: This is the world’s largest gold mining complex, with six mines producing over 3.3 million ounces.
  2. Muruntau, Uzbekistan: This state-owned mine is one of the world’s deepest open-pit operations, producing just under 3 million ounces of gold, representing over 80% of Uzbekistan’s overall gold production.
  3. Grasberg, Indonesia: This mine is one of the world’s largest gold and copper reserves. It is an open-pit mine operated by PT Freeport Indonesia, a joint venture between the government of Indonesia, Papua, and the American company Freeport-McMoRan.
  4. Olimpiada, Russia: This mine produced 1,998,000 ounces of gold in 2022, making it one of the largest gold mines by production.
  5. Boddington, Australia: This mine produced 813,000 ounces of gold in 2022. It is one of the largest gold mines in Australia

Is Gold Toxic?

In its pure form, gold is not toxic to the human body. It is biologically inert, passing through the digestive system without being absorbed. 

However, the process of gold mining can have detrimental effects on the environment and human health. 

Can Gold Be Recycled?

Yes, gold can be recycled. Gold is one of the most consistently recycled materials on the planet. Since its discovery, only 2% of all the gold mined needs to be accounted for, either having been dumped or lost track of. 

Recycling gold has a considerably lower environmental impact compared to mining. For instance, high-value gold scrap recycling in Germany results in a cumulative energy demand (CED) of 820 MJ per kg of gold, significantly lower than the CED for newly mined gold. 

Moreover, the economic impact of gold recycling direct Gross Value Added (GVA) is significant. For instance, the GVA per tonne of recycled gold is approximately approximately £12 million

The following table presents the most current data available on the environmental impact of gold recycling compared to virgin gold mining:

Impact CategoryRecycled GoldVirgin GoldReduction (%)
Cumulative Energy Demand (MJ/kg)820~8,000~90
Global Warming Potential (t-CO2-Eq./kg)Lower1Significant
Waste Generated (tons per wedding ring)Less20>95
Environmental Impact (overall)99% lowerHigh99
*Note: The values for virgin gold are based on as at the time of publication.

However, the recovery rate for gold from electronic scrap is currently only about 15 per cent. Some companies, like The Royal Mint, are investing in technology to recover gold from e-waste and are using recycled gold in their products.

According to the World Gold Council, the year recycled gold supply in 2022 increased by 1% but remains 30% below the all-time high in 2012.

YearRecycled Gold Supply (tonnes)
20121,632
20221,144

This data shows that while gold recycling is a viable and environmentally friendly alternative to mining, it currently needs to meet the global demand for gold.

Is Gold Biodegradable?

Gold, in its pure form, is not biodegradable. It is a stable element that does not break down naturally in the environment. 

While gold itself is not biodegradable, recent studies have shown that gold nanoparticles can be degraded in vitro by cells, with smaller particles degrading faster. This could be used in various clinical applications and made biodegradable under certain conditions. 

The result is significant, especially in medicine, where gold nanoparticles are used for various therapeutic applications, including cancer treatment.

Is Gold Mining Sustainable?

The sustainability of gold mining is a complex issue with both positive and negative aspects. This is because gold mining has been a cornerstone of economic development for many countries, providing jobs, infrastructure, and significant contributions to national GDPs. 

The gold mining industry also has a pathway to decarbonise and reach net zero by 2050, in alignment with the Paris Agreement. The Responsible Gold Mining Principles (RGMPs), launched in 2019, set clear expectations for responsible gold mining. 

As demand for precious metals, particularly gold, continues to increase across the globe, we must find more sustainable solutions for supply to match demand. Mining for precious metals has significant environmental consequences including water and air pollution, soil contamination, landscape destruction, and often the destabilization of local communities geographically situated near mining sites.

Brandon Aversano, the founder of Alloy

The Balance Between Costs and Benefits

However, transitioning to sustainable practices has its challenges. Many regions have grown dependent on gold mining, and closing mines could have significant socio-economic impacts. 

The challenge lies in balancing the undeniable economic benefits with the environmental and social costs. For instance, the ecological and health issues associated with artisanal small-scale mining (ASM) are particularly acute, with millions of gold miners in 70 countries facing significant risks.

In addition, some researchers argue that enough gold is already in circulation for tech and trading needs and that new gold mining should be stopped due to its environmental impact. 

The level of carbon emission from gold mining sites

What Can Be Done With Leftovers of Gold Mining Sites?

The end of a mine’s life doesn’t mean the end of value for the site. Innovative and sustainable ways exist to repurpose these areas, turning environmental liabilities into assets. Leftover sites from gold mining operations can be repurposed or rehabilitated in several ways.

Repurposing for Renewable Energy

One of the most promising uses for former gold mining sites is the development of renewable energy projects. The large tracts of land cleared for mining can be ideal locations for solar or wind farms.

These projects provide clean energy, create jobs, and contribute to the local economy.

Ecological Restoration

Ecological restoration is another path for these sites, aiming to return the land to its natural state or a new, sustainable use. For example, repurposing the land for other industries or recreational areas. This benefits both the different sectors and local communities. 

Tourism and Recreation

Transforming old mining sites into tourist attractions or recreational areas is a way to boost local economies. These sites can offer historical tours, hiking trails, and even adventure activities like zip-lining, capitalising on the unique landscapes shaped by mining activities.

Research and Education

Mining sites can serve as valuable research areas for studying environmental impacts and developing new mining technologies or remediation techniques. 

To illustrate the potential of these initiatives, let’s consider a hypothetical example of a repurposed gold mining site and its economic impact:

YearSolar Energy Generated (MWh)Jobs CreatedTourists AttractedTrees Planted
110,000501,0005,000
220,000752,00010,000
330,0001005,00020,000
440,00015010,00035,000
550,00020020,00050,000

What Are Alternatives to Gold?

Gold has been a coveted asset for centuries, symbolising wealth and a hedge against inflation. However, in the modern investment landscape, several alternatives to gold offer similar benefits and, in some cases, better returns. 

Alternatives to Gold

Several alternatives to gold have emerged, offering potential for better returns and diversification. These include:

  1. Silver: Silver is a precious metal that is more inexpensive than gold. As of Spring 2023, an ounce of silver could be purchased at £16, compared to an ounce of gold at £1,450.
  2. Platinum: Once referred to as “white gold,” platinum is ten times rarer than gold. It is used in various industries, including automotive and jewellery. 
  3. Palladium: This precious metal is used in various industries, including automotive and electronics, and is gaining interest as an alternative to gold. 
  4. Digital Investments: The rise of digital investments, such as cryptocurrencies, has also provided an alternative to traditional gold investments.
Precious MetalPrice per Ounce (GBP)Industrial Use
Gold£1,213.50Electronics, Jewelry
Silver£15.75Electronics, Solar Panels, Jewelry
Platinum£765.00Automotive, Jewelry
Palladium£1,800.00Automotive, Electronics
*Prices as at time of publication
InvestmentProsCons
GoldHistorically, it outperforms with less downsideAssociated with environmental and human rights issues
SilverMore inexpensive than gold; Dual purpose in investment and industryMore cyclical than gold
PlatinumTen times rarer than goldMore expensive than other metals
PalladiumUsed in various industriesLimited supply
Electric Vehicle MetalsGreat investment opportunityDependent on the EV market
Digital InvestmentsPotential for high returnsHighly volatile

Is Gold Better Than Alternatives?

Whether gold is better than its alternatives depends on the investor’s goals, risk tolerance, and investment horizon. It’s also universally accepted and easily liquidated, making it a safe and flexible investment. 

However, alternatives like silver, platinum, and palladium can offer better returns in certain market conditions. They also have industrial uses that can drive demand and increase their value. Digital alternatives, on the other hand, can offer high returns but come with higher risk and volatility. 

Statistics, Facts, and Figures about Gold Mining

Gold mining is an industry that has been the backbone of economic development in various countries and continues to play a pivotal role in the global economy. 

According to Statista and other reputable sources, here are some vital facts and statistics on gold mining:

  • The global gold mining reserves fluctuate slightly yearly but are at most 50,000 metric tons.
  • From 2022, China was the largest producer of gold, accounting for around 11% of total global production.
  • The total gold supply halted two successive declines in the same year.
  • Over 90% of the world’s gold has been mined since the California Gold Rush.
  • Gold mining involves transforming rock and ore into a metallic alloy of substantial purity, known as doré, which typically contains between 60-90% gold.
  • The US Federal Reserve holds 530,000 gold bars.
  • Global gold production has grown exponentially since the 1800s, with 86% of all above-ground gold mined in the last 200 years.
  • Global gold production is expected to surpass 130 million ounces in 2024
  • In 2022, total supply increased by 2% year-on-year, with mine production totalling 3,612 metric tons, up 1% year-on-year.
  • The carbon footprint of the global gold industry comprises 0.3% of global emissions.
  • The United States is the fourth largest global gold producer, with 190.2 tonnes in reserves. The state of Nevada accounts for 80% of the country’s gold production.
  • Ghana has reached the top six positions as the world’s gold producer, with 138.7 tonnes of reserves.

The Need for Sustainable Practices

While gold mining contributes to the global economy, it has significant environmental impacts. Therefore, there is a need for more sustainable mining practices to mitigate these impacts.

These include water and land contamination, deforestation, ecosystem destruction, health risks, and contribution to global emissions.

Inemesit Ukpanah
Written by Inemesit Ukpanah, Writer

Inemesit is a seasoned content writer with 9 years of experience in B2B and B2C. Her expertise in sustainability and green technologies guides readers towards eco-friendly choices, significantly contributing to the field of renewable energy and environmental sustainability.

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