The Eco-Revolution Is Under Threat
The looming copper crisis is terrifying.
There is one material that underpins our eco-friendly future; copper. This red-ish metal is an integral part of pretty much every major piece of climate technology. This means that copper demand is set to skyrocket! Analysts predict that by 2031, global copper demand will reach 36.6 million tonnes per year, which is a massive problem, as copper production is expected to reach only 30.1 million tonnes per year by 2031. This 18% shortfall will cause an enormous cost crisis, grinding our eco-revolution to a halt. But why can’t copper production keep up? And is there a solution?
Let’s start with why we are so reliant on copper. Copper is incredibly malleable, has an incredibly low electrical resistance and has one of the highest levels of thermal conductivity of all metals. This makes it ideal for wiring, as the wires won’t break when flexed and will be efficient thanks to low electrical resistance. It also makes it ideal for any high-temperature electrical application, such as electric motors or generators, as they keep their low electrical resistance when heated and can be used to extract heat from the unit. This is why you will find vast amounts of copper in EVs, wind turbine generators, nuclear generators, energy grids, grid-level batteries and Direct Aire Capture carbon capture systems. But, we also use copper to safely dispose of nuclear waste, as its malleableness and corrosion resistance make it an ideal encasement material for long-term nuclear waste storage.
No other metal offers this same blend of malleability, low electrical resistance and thermal conductivity. So as we adopt more climate-friendly technology, our demand for copper will have to increase dramatically.
But, surely we can just build more mines, or expand current mines?
Well, Expanding current mines requires digging deeper to reach more ore deposits. This vastly increases the complexity of the mine, can cause immense ecological risks, such as increased heavy metal leaching into the water table and can have huge political implications (workers' rights, local government, conservation groups, etc.). This makes expanding a mine’s output incredibly difficult, massively expensive and arduous.
In other words, expanding our current copper mines isn’t commercially viable and won’t be until copper prices are much higher; more on that later. But as expansion takes a vast amount of upfront investment, they won’t preemptively start expansion and will wait until copper prices are much higher. But it can take years to complete expansion, meaning that current copper mines will likely lag far behind demand for the next few decades.
So what about opening new mines? Well, new mines tend to be far more simple and, therefore, profitable operations compared to expanding already operation mines. So, in theory, they can be used to increase copper production before copper prices start to spike, keeping to looming cost crisis at bay. This is one of the reasons that 65% of all potential copper mine sites are for brand-spanking-new “greenfield sites.”
But new copper mines have some severe drawbacks- namely, development time, ecological damage, impacts on indigenous people, compensation to governments and shortage of sites.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Planet Earth & Beyond to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.