Yes, diamond mining is bad for the environment on many fronts, from its overall role in land degradation to its industrial emissions.
However, while it’s a resource-intensive practice with wide-reaching implications for the natural world, communities are often dependent on it, making it a difficult and complex issue.
Here, we discuss a few of the main issues with diamond mining and look at whether there are any viable alternatives.
How Does Diamond Mining Affect the Environment?
Research has documented many serious environmental issues with diamond mining, from deforestation to water scarcity.
However, the practice remains a vital part of many countries’ economies which has allowed it to continue to this day.
Today, diamonds are predominantly mined using the block cave method, which is similar to open-pit mining but carried out underground.
With this technique, large artificial caverns are created by removing sections of rock.
These caverns eventually fill with rubble as they collapse, and the broken diamond ores called kimberlite fall into special funnels sheltered beneath the cavern where they can be extracted.
According to the GeoScience Australia (a governmental advisor) organization, it takes roughly 250 tonnes of this extracted ore to produce just one carat of a polished diamond.
And this, as we’ll discuss, requires large-scale mining operations that can drastically change the landscape.
1. Soil Erosion and Land Degradation
One of the main issues with diamond mining, as we hinted above, is that it often requires massive land disturbances to create the infrastructure needed to facilitate their operations.
This, per a European Commission report, entails a large number of waste and hazardous materials that end up on the land’s surface.
Moreover, it creates kimberlite tailings, particle-size ore dust, which can spread 5 km (3.1 mi), polluting the atmosphere, water, and soil.
These tailings and operations, in general, have been shown in research to degrade the soil, which changes its physical, mechanical, and chemical properties.
For instance, it loses its drainage ability and changes the composition of minerals so that it accumulates heavy metals, causing further pollutant concentration, which spreads and is absorbed by plants.
Another concern is soil erosion, where the top layer of soil gets stripped from the ground’s surface, and this was evident in the research around the center of the mining operations.
All these aspects are where land degradation or the loss of productive land come into play, as contaminated areas are no longer arable, which can have long-lasting effects for both the ecosystem and communities who live off the land.
2. Forestry Fragmentation
Another aspect that comes in the process of setting up diamond mining operations is forestry clearing.
Studies of diamond mining areas report large losses of tree coverage, not only to prepare the ground for mining activity but because logging is often needed to support mining communities during the work.
For instance, the study presents that over the course of one mine’s operations, a potential 1.56 to 18.37% of the country’s total tree cover may have been lost.
To put this into perspective, the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country in question, is made up of about 134 million hectares or 1.34 million km², roughly 60% of the country.
That would mean even at the minimum end of the scale, they lost 20.904 km² of tree coverage, equivalent to more than the area of the entire country of Israel.
The knock-on effects of this are significant, leading to ecological fragmentation, which can alter the distribution and population of many species through habitat loss.
3. Ecosystem Affects
As you can imagine from what we’ve discussed so far, diamond mining can cause sweeping changes to the ecosystems that surround them.
To illustrate, a study on diamond mine adjacent vegetation found that the activities actually altered their chemical composition and biological processes.
The vegetation species came under oxidative attack, which is where the pollution in the atmosphere deteriorates the tree’s fatty compounds, including the various nutrients it stores for its survival, such as antioxidants.
In response, the vegetation began to intensify cellular respiration – in other words, to break down its own energy to combat the stress, showing that the effects of the mining affected them at a biological level.
Of course, as this vegetation is one of the components of its habitat, this likely affected other species as well.
On a macro scale, these changes are more visible. For instance, though most diamond mining is done inland, there’s another branch of diamond mining that is conducted underwater called alluvial mining.
This type of mining involves dredging shallow or deep water beds for kimberlite deposits in the sediment.
This activity has been shown in research to create habitat fragmentation and species death, change the behavior of species, and even disrupt the ability of microbes to sequester carbon.
Particularly in deep-sea habitats, which are not used to the kind of disturbances that such activities can cause, the effects can be long-lasting, with the entirety of the consequences not fully understood.
However, the research tends to believe that it could be sufficient to disturb ecosystem function to the point where it alters climate regulation – i.e., the numerous services which the climate provides, such as air quality, temperature modulation, and weather composition.
4. Emissions and Resource Consumption
According to a research piece in 2021, the CO2 output for one polished carat of diamond is approximately 160 kg (353 lbs).
Taking into account that global production of rough diamonds stands at roughly 177 million carats per year, and of these, 19% go on to become polished diamonds (roughly 33.6 million), we can estimate the total CO2 output of the diamond mining industry comes to around 5 million tons (or 5 billion kg) per year.
In terms of equivalents, the EPA says this is the same as the amount of CO2 produced to power 630.168 homes for an entire year.
But of course, CO2 isn’t the only emission involved in diamond mining.
As a report by the Imperial College of London highlights, we can see that a single mined carat of diamond also produces:
- 0.4 kg of particulate matter – a mixture of solid and liquid chemical particles known to cause respiratory issues.
- 0.86 kg of nitrous oxides – a reactive class of gasses involved in the production of acid rain.
- 0.51 kg of sulfur oxides – a toxic vapor that also plays a role in acid rain.
And at the same time:
- 480 L of water gets consumed.
- 52 kWh of energy is spent.
- 100 sq ft of land will be used.
While these numbers might seem small, consider:
One, that this is for 1 carat, and millions are produced each year – and two, that these figures are the lower value estimates.
As we touched on above, heavy metal deposits are one of the unfortunate side effects of diamond mining.
Research highlights these deposits can include a composite of copper, zinc, and lead, but also particularly toxic elements such as arsenic, cadmium, and mercury.
And these elements don’t just affect the soil.
To explain, groundwater is present in the rocks beneath the land’s surface and naturally flows in and out of underground materials as it goes through the water cycle (the flow of water from the atmosphere to the land).
As with any extractive industry, diamond mining being one such example, this presents the potential for heavy metal elements to leach into the groundwater, where it can spread far beyond the initial point of contamination.
As a result, studies of how heavy metal concentrations affect the landscape note that these elements can end up in other water supplies (e.g., rivers, lakes, and streams) and accumulate in agricultural stocks through the uptake of water in the soil, where they present a risk to both public and ecological health.
Are There Eco-Friendly Diamond Mines?
Although there are many issues with the diamond mining industry, there have been attempts to make it more sustainable over the last 20 years.
According to a review of some of these practices, the main focus in the industry has been to try and scale back the consumption of diamond minerals to fit with actual reserve ability.
In other words, the basic tenet is that operations should not exceed capacity.
This has been implemented through policy reforms such as the “Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative” and later the “Responsible Mineral Development Initiative,” which suggested various changes, transparency, and enforced monitoring protocols to ensure resources were being properly managed.
The main stipulates of these reforms are as follows (the principles derived namely from those of sustainable industry practice):
- To reduce disruption to land
- To reduce the number of resources used to facilitate mining operations
- To reduce the byproducts of these operations
- To rehabilitate the lands after extraction
Such policies have been made the standard across international bodies regarding diamond mining, but several issues still remain.
For instance, in one study investigating the reality of ‘sustainable’ mines, despite there being various methods that could lower the overall environmental costs, such as better disposal management, the expenses are often off-putting to operators.
Rather than eco-friendly mines as such, the more commonly accepted standard is that companies simply have to meet a certain level of the requirements listed above, regardless of whether this is enough to actually mitigate damage in a meaningful way or not.
Are Synthetic Diamonds an Eco-Friendly Alternative?
Synthetic diamonds are carbon-based, just like the real thing.
These diamonds can be made in two ways – either from the application of high pressure and temperature or through heating of a small amount of carbon in a chamber filled with hydrogen (as explained in the Journal of Physics).
As you might have guessed, the energy requirements for this endeavor are significant, but still not to the extent of mined diamonds.
For comparison, studies show that a carat of rough-mined diamond expended roughly between 96 and 150 kWh, even more than Imperial Colleges’ estimation above.
Whereas the synthetic diamonds made through the first method of heating and pressure took only 36 kWh per carat.
However, the synthetic diamonds made through the latter method, using hydrogen, were the highest of all at 215 kWh.
While this shows that synthetic diamonds can be just as energy-consuming as their counterparts, we also have to consider the other forms of damage that mined diamonds do.
For instance, water consumption for synthetic diamonds is significantly lower, with water consumption for high-pressure diamonds at nearly nothing and the hydrogen version at 2 L per carat.
Conversely, the water for mined diamonds was 77 L in this estimate.
Moreover, if we look at emissions for synthetic diamonds, we see similar outcomes.
In fact, a study estimates that in terms of greenhouse gasses, synthetic diamonds could save 483 miles worth of auto emissions compared to the annual production of mined diamonds.
However, it’s important to note that we can’t see the full data picture for the approximation of emission from the synthetic diamond industry.
Nevertheless, it does appear greener considering the overall difference in energy and water expenditure and in terms of the land implications of mined diamonds (synthetics only requiring lab as opposed to open pit mining facilities).