The impact of gold - Sustainability aspects in the gold supply-chains and Switzerland’s role as a gold hub

In 2018, WWF Switzerland published a study where the biggest Swiss watch companies were ranked based on their environmental performance. This rating demonstrated that most companies were not able to trace back along their supply chain to understand where the raw materials for their products were sourced. This new study focuses not on a ranking of individual companies but instead on providing a more in-depth investigation of the environmental and social impact of gold as well as Switzerland’s role as one of the major global gold hubs; it thereby highlights the lack of transparency in the gold supply chain.

The environmental impacts and social challenges along the supply chain are systematically outlined. The key findings of the study are:

— To extract 1 tonne of gold, an average of 100 000 tonnes of waste rock is produced. 1 000 kg of soil must be moved and processed to produce a 10 g gold ring.

— The production of 1 kg of gold leads to the emission of 12 500 kg of CO2 equivalent. This equates to approximately 42.25 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent for all gold production globally in 2019, which is nearly three times the amount of all transportation-related emissions in Switzerland.

— In 2015, artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) mercury emissions to air amounted to ca. 838 tonnes, the single largest source of anthropogenic mercury emissions, at almost 38 % of the worldwide total. The mercury used on a large scale in ASGM poses significant health risks to workers and residents either directly or through the food chains.

— Sub-Saharan Africa and South America are the main regions for ASGM. Between 2010 and 2015, South America increased its mercury emissions by 163 %. This goes hand in hand with an increase in ASGM in the Amazon.

— The study shows in detail how gold mining causes substantial damage to soil, water and flora and fauna.

— Compared to other minerals, gold is by far the raw material most often mined in forest areas. These forests are often particularly valuable ecologically, which greatly increases the potential impact of gold mining on flora and wildlife.

— Analysis shows that large-scale gold mining (LSGM), which accounts for about 80 % of global gold mine production, also causes environmental problems. In general, LSGM impacts tend to be locally concentrated and massive as deposits are mined over longer periods of time. Due to the scale of the operations, impacts following accidents are often devastating. Tailings dam breaks resulted in some of the biggest environmental catastrophes in history. Hazardous substances contained in processing reagents as well as heavy metals and acid mine drainage (AMD) are crucial issues in LSGM.

— LSGM as well as ASGM can have severe effects on local populations, indigenous peoples, and workers. Resettlement or displacement in LSGM poses a significant threat to social sustainability. As an example, the development of the largest gold mine on Papua province in Indonesia led to a displacement of 15 000 residents who were mostly indigenous people.


More information about the project

Status of project

End of project: 2021

Project staff

Peter Dolega

Funded by

World Wide Fund For Nature International Deutschland (WWF Schweiz)

Website of project