Mining and extractive industry have played a significant role in the development of many countries all over the world. The industry has been, and continues to be an important contributor to both national and regional economies and is critical to national defence. Mining, and the industries it supports, is among the basin building blocks of a modern society.
The world today is facing and increasing mineral resource demand. This has been illustrated by the European Commission Vice President Günter Verheugen, responsible for enterprise and industry policy, who said: "European industries need predictability in the flow of raw materials and stable prices to remain competitive. We are committed to improve the conditions of access to raw materials, be it within Europe or by creating a level playing field in accessing such materials from abroad”.
In recent years, the EU’s total material requirement has remained at a constantly high level. But in this time the weight of imports and their environmental impacts have considerably increased (EEA 2003). Numerous mines have closed in Europe during the last few decades, either because of natural exhaustion or because they were not profitable. With the closure of mines environmental pressure has been reduced in Europe but raised in other regions. The environmental footprint of EU material consumption has shifted from Europe to other regions.
At the same time, the ecological impacts of imports into the EU have increased. One tonne of imports leaves behind an average amount of 5 tonnes in mining waste, emissions and erosion in the exporting country (Schütz/Moll/Bringezu 2003). This ratio has more than doubled over the past twenty-five years, and in the case of ores has quadrupled from 1:4 to 1:16 tonnes. This suggests that the acquisition of raw materials is becoming more and more costly, that more energy has to be used, and that more waste is left behind by mining operations. The analysis of the ecological impacts of imports to the EU reveals that environmental burden is shifted with significant social and economic consequences in other parts of the world.
The global dimension of this problem is being increasingly recognised. Access to raw materials was on the agenda of the G8 Summit on 6-8 June 2007. On that occasion a Declaration on "Responsibility for raw materials: transparency and sustainable growth" was adopted, which addresses the key priorities for a sustainable and transparent approach to this question. In addition the Competitiveness Council meeting on 21 May 2007 has invited the Commission to develop a coherent political approach to the issues arising. As a result, the European Commission launched in autumn 2008 ”The Raw Materials Initiative – Meeting our Critical Needs for Growth and Jobs in Europe” (COM(2008)699).
The responsible management of Earth’s environment is one of today’s most pressing concerns and a central motivation for the Group on Earth Observations (GEO). Sound environmental management of mining activities can avoid high remediation costs, which frequently might drain public funds. Surface and groundwater pollution, soil contamination, and terrain instability all cause damage that can affect urban and sub-urban areas. Understanding and monitoring pollution processes in mining areas is therefore of concern to a very wide user community, including central government bodies or agencies, local authorities, industry, environmental groups and individual citizens.