The world is at a crossroads. Energy markets are being restructured to combat climate change and post-pandemic economic recovery planning is underway. Whichever way markets turn, record quantities of copper will be needed. With this in mind, analysts are signalling that unless there is a significant uptick in production, we’re headed for a ‘supply crunch’. This raises significant sustainability issues for copper.
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Future copper mines are projected to be lower grade, deeper, and more technically complex. Historical and projected copper metal production and ore grade from 1900 to 2050 highlights a continuation in the increase in production and decreasing grade, as innovation in the mining industry has allowed lower grades to be mined profitably. This combination of lower grade and greater depth means that many new mining projects will generate more waste rock, tailings, and deleterious elements – such as arsenic. If projected demand for copper is to be met, between 2000 to 2050, the SMI at the University of Queensland estimates that the world will produce approximately nine times the amount of copper tailings produced in the entire century prior.
Copper’s sustainability challenges don’t stop there. New copper mines are more likely to be located in politically and ecologically sensitive areas.
A recent global analysis of 300 undeveloped copper orebodies found that 65% of undeveloped reserves and resources are located in high water risk areas, 47% on or in close proximity to Indigenous peoples’ lands, 65% in areas located in or in close proximity to biodiversity conservation areas, and 50% in socially and politically fragile countries.1 Sustainability risks were also analysed in combination and high levels of ‘risk intensity’ were found, with 63% of global copper reserves and resources having four or more concurrent risks.
Will a rise in the price of copper solve these sustainability issues? Evidence suggests that it will not.
Mining companies rely on rising prices to address supply shortfalls. Higher metal prices drive companies to explore and operate in difficult locations, invest in infrastructure, and implement new mining technologies. Some of these technologies will support sustainability improvements, such as: waste and emissions reduction, recycling, and efficiencies in water and energy use. However, many sustainability risks are not price sensitive. For instance, in the contexts in which they operate, mining companies cannot pay their way out of biodiversity loss, extreme poverty, or corruption risk. If large numbers of undeveloped copper orebodies are rapidly brought into production in these contexts, local impacts will intensify, across multiple sites. Complex sets of impacts will be ‘baked’ into mining’s future legacy – often without clarity about who takes responsibility for them over the long term.
If the copper industry simply ramps up, without looking at how mining could be done differently, operators could jeopardise supply. And if opposition to a proliferating set of local-level impacts grows, and supply stalls because of poor industry practice, so too will the clean energy transition.
It’s going to be vitally important that copper producers do not gloss over copper’s sustainability challenges now, or in the future.
1.VALENTA, R.K., KEMP, D., OWEN, J.R., CORDER, G.D., and LÈBRE, É., ‘Re-thinking complex orebodies: Consequences for the future world supply of copper’, Journal of Cleaner Production, (20 May 2019), www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652619305359.