By Brian Wagenaar September 22, 2023
Globally, access to copper is characterized by deep inequality. The global rich, whose high levels of consumption and carbon emissions have largely created the climate crisis, have a lot of copper. The global poor, who contribute very little to our atmospheric carbon burden, consume very little of this increasingly precious metal.
As the world undergoes decarbonization, access to copper and other critical metals is becoming increasingly important, but environmental and social impacts, political resistance and unrest, and falling ore grades all pose ethical quandaries and associated supply issues.
Moving forward, proper consideration for communities impacted by mining must be done to ensure that the many benefits of modern industrial society are shared and that the costs of mining and producing copper don’t fall disproportionately on poor and marginalized communities.
Progress Toward Global Electrification
Lack of copper is a key reason the poor are marginalized. There is no alternative to copper to transmit electricity at scale. And without electricity, there is limited ability to access radio or television news, connect to the internet, or use telephones, all of which are important for having an informed voice in political decisions and cultural movements in the modern world.
The transition to renewable energy will require unprecedented amounts of copper. There is real potential for competition between the rich, seeking more copper for wind energy and electric cars, and the poor, who require a wire to connect to an electric light or use a cell phone.
Universal electrification is a shared human goal. Our global political leadership is (or at least has been) committed to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 7 is to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” by 2030.1
There are more than 700 million people “mostly concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia — [who] live their daily lives without electricity,” according to the International Energy Agency.2 Hundreds of millions more live with intermittent or prohibitively expensive access.
We have made progress, reducing the number of people without electricity from 1.2 billion in 2010 to 733 million in 2020.3 But that progress has slowed or possibly stopped, according to the World Bank.4
The World Bank said, “This represents a fundamental barrier to progress for a sizable proportion of the world’s population and has impacts on a wide range of development indicators, including health, education, food security, gender equality, livelihoods and poverty reduction.”
The Growing Global Demand for Copper
Copper’s usefulness flows from a few key properties: It can be strung into wire and molded for various uses. It has high electrical and thermal conductivity — only silver and gold, which are rarer and more expensive, are competitive in conducting electricity.5
Efforts to improve the conductivity of aluminum to replace or supplement copper are underway but are developmental.6 Currently, there is no viable alternative to copper in meeting the requirements of the ongoing energy transition.
Further driving demand is the fact that renewable technologies require more copper than fossil fuel competitors. A Tesla vehicle’s high-performance copper rotor motor weighs 100 pounds, and there is more copper in its wiring and other components.7
Mining for copper and other metals in batteries will need to increase as the United States seeks to ensure that half of all vehicles sold are electric by 2030.8 S&P Global suggests that copper demand will double by 2035 as the world decarbonizes.9
A Copper-Supply Problem
The logical question is: Where are we going to get all this copper? Copper represents 0.006% of the material that constitutes our planet, and only about 0.25% of that copper in Earth’s crust has been concentrated in ores rich enough to mine.10 Mineable deposits are located primarily in a small number of countries, with the most notable deposits located in Chile and Peru.11
Much of the unexploited copper is tied up in legal and political battles. Everyone benefits from copper, but few invite copper mining into their backyards.
Annual global production of copper has escalated over the last decade and a half, rising from 16 million metric tonnes in 2010 to 22 million metric tonnes in 2022.12 There are deep concerns that this growth cannot continue indefinitely and the supply is inadequate to meet demand.
“Everyone should have been shouting about copper months ago, especially those involved in clean energy policy, but warnings have been few and far between,” wrote Mark Le Dain for Forbes.13
Falling Ore Grades and Stalled Projects Curb Supply
Thankfully for us, copper is infinitely recyclable, and much of the world’s previously mined copper remains in circulation. Recycling existing copper meets roughly one third of total U.S. demand annually.14
Despite our considerable supply of copper, the United States imports something close to half the copper it consumes, up from 33% in 2018 to 41% in 2022.15 This trend is the result of domestic demand outpacing supply over the last 25 years as existing U.S. mines age and decline in productivity and proposed mines are halted by legal and political opposition.
Much of this opposition is well-founded. There are some proposed copper projects that have astonishing potential environmental or social impacts and should not be built. Using the energy transition as an excuse to overlook deep flaws in proposed mining projects is a profound mistake.
Concerns over global copper supply extend to the world’s heavyweight producer, Chile. Chile’s Copper Commission (Cochilco) estimates that Chile’s average copper-ore grades have fallen by more than half between 1999 and 2016.16
Copper production in the Latin American nation has been slowed by labor concerns and water scarcity — although CODELCO, the state-owned copper company, plans to invest billions in the coming years to maximize production.17 Lower ore grades means more material must be removed and processed to produce a tonne of copper, requiring more energy and more water.
Mining companies around the world are struggling as ore grades decline. A 2016 study of the copper industry found that since 2006, ore grades had declined 25%, with growth in resulting energy expenditures overtaking production growth.18
There is growing uncertainty about whether copper mining can meet demand.
Opening new mines may only serve to replace the production being lost as other mines go offline. The CRU Group estimates that more than 200 mines will close by 2035.19
Copper Production in the United States
Most United States copper mining takes place in the Southwest. Four of the five largest U.S. copper mines are in Arizona.20 The Morenci Mine in southeast Arizona is the leading national mine, producing 397 thousand tonnes of copper in 2021.21 However, declining output will likely shutter the mine in the next 20 years as it reaches the end of its economic viability.22
One project that could bolster the U.S. supply of copper is Resolution Copper, an Arizona project that could become the largest copper mine in North America, extracting about a quarter of U.S. copper demand from the ground annually.23
But this project is vehemently opposed by Native American groups, notably the San Carlos Apache, who are probably right to be outraged at the political gamesmanship employed by proponents. They believe the mine would devastate portions of their sacred cultural heritage and ravage the landscape.
Environmental groups also stand in firm opposition.
Judicial review of the land swap deal that would allow Resolution Copper to move forward is currently snaking through the legal system after more than a decade of environmental review.
Political opposition to specific mining projects often comes from some of the same forces that are pressing for a rapid energy transition, representing a fundamental tension.
We should take seriously the criticism that many U.S. citizens or Europeans want to obtain more copper without affecting their own environment and are willing to have projects go forward in poor countries that would be unacceptable in their own nations.
Proposed Copper Projects Stall out
The Pebble Project
Pebble is a large copper deposit in an area of extreme ecological sensitivity: the spawning grounds of one of the largest and most valuable salmon populations in North America.
The project’s developer estimates that Pebble contains 6.46 billion tonnes of ore, a total resource of 56.9 billion pounds of copper — the second largest deposit of its kind in the world.24
Environmentalists, salmon fishermen, indigenous people and others have campaigned against the proposed mine for decades, with what looks like success. Under the Trump Administration, the United States Army Corps of Engineers denied critical permits needed to enable its development.25
In January 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency capped this decades-long battle by declaring that the agency was using its veto authority because the mine would prove too damaging to the Bristol Bay salmon run.26
Mes Aynak Project
The Mes Aynak site in Afghanistan is estimated to contain 5.5 million tonnes of copper.27 The complex contains numerous Buddhist monasteries, statues and market areas, including Bronze Age artifacts dating back more than 3,000 years.28
Mining Mes Aynak could destroy this world-class archaeological treasure and would, of course, involve working together as partners with the Taliban in a highly unstable country.
NUSSIR ASA Project
In northern Norway, NUSSIR ASA announced it would build the world’s first all-electric, zero-carbon-emission mining operation.29 But one of the world’s largest copper smelters terminated its agreement to buy raw materials from NUSSIR ASA after opposition from local indigenous groups.30
The project proposes to dispose of wastes by discharging them into the sea in a local fjord. In 2018, the Norwegian government banned marine waste dumping for all new projects, although NUSSIR ASA claims to be “grandfathered” and exempt from this ban.31
Moving Toward Solutions
These are hardly the only copper projects with a history of conflict.
Unless we can find a new paradigm for mine development, one that ensures the surrounding environment and laborers are protected — and grants in which communities can have a meaningful voice — the road ahead is one littered with conflict and endless legal battles.
Most expressed concerns of communities impacted by potential projects are quite real. Trying to ignore these concerns and force unwanted copper mines on unwilling populations is likely to slow, not speed access to the copper that is so desperately needed to enable greener development.
Certification of mining operations is part of the solution. One such certifier is the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, which claims to offer “true independent assessment against a comprehensive standard for all mined materials that provides ‘one-stop coverage’ of the full range of issues related to the impacts of industrial-scale mines.”32
There is also The Copper Mark, which works with companies to verify that they are acting responsibly and adhering to Sustainable Development Goals.33 Governments overseeing these operations can also improve their performance by following the Mining Policy Framework of the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development.34
Additionally, the big consumers of copper, electric vehicle manufacturers, electrical-products manufacturers, and wire producers, must insist on a high level of supply-chain assurance from the people from whom they buy copper. Individual consumers must also be persistent and demanding of the companies from whom they are buying their electric vehicles or solar systems.
The United States should consider designating copper a mineral of critical importance, adding it to the list kept by the United States Geological Survey. Momentum has picked up steam after unrest in Peru, the world’s second largest copper producer, recently spurred uncertainty in the global copper market.35
This would incentivize local investment in copper production and recycling and send a clear signal that the United States and leading countries are serious about responsible production.
We can no longer afford to rush headlong into the energy transition without addressing these problems. Instead, we must work cooperatively to develop copper more sustainably throughout the supply chain, ensuring that the many benefits of the metal, including the renewable technologies and electrical infrastructure it enables, are shared more equitably.
About the Author
Brian Wagenaar completed the work for this article as a research fellow for Sustainable Development Strategies Group. He received a Master’s of Environmental Management degree from Western Colorado University in May 2023 and currently lives in San Francisco, California.