Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
- Some of the world’s largest copper-mining companies outlined steps to clean up their operations.
- The plans call for using renewable electricity sources to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.
- Analysts expect demand for copper will double by 2050 because of growth in renewable energy.
Some of the world’s largest copper-mining companies this week outlined plans to clean up their own operations and energy use in the coming decades. And while it might sound counterintuitive, mining more copper is actually key to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
Analysts expect global demand for copper to double from today’s levels to 50 million metric tons by 2050 as more wind turbines, solar panels, batteries, and transmission lines are installed. Broader use of these technologies could also help shrink the copper industry’s carbon footprint.
The electricity that mining companies like Freeport-McMoRan, BHP, and Rio Tinto use at plants that process ore into copper are the industry’s largest source of emissions, according to the International Copper Association. The trade group’s new climate strategy also involves installing more solar and wind farms at these sites.
Another strategy is switching enormous dump trucks, excavators, and drills to cleaner fuels like biodiesel and green hydrogen, as well as replacing natural-gas furnaces with electric ones — although some of those innovations are still in their early stages.
“A lot of these technologies do exist,” Anthony Lea, the president of the International Copper Association, told Insider. “There are prototype vehicles out there, so it’s going to take a dialogue between mining companies and equipment manufacturers. But when it comes to more green electricity from the grid, this requires government policy.”
Members of the association account for about half of global refined-copper production, and by midcentury they aim to slash emissions by upward of 70% across their combined operations. China, the world’s third-largest producer of refined copper, isn’t represented.
Lea said the climate strategy can help show the public, policymakers, and investors that copper mining can expand in a responsible way, which can help attract investment.
The association estimated that at least $110 billion is needed between now and 2050 just to decarbonize its member companies’ operations and electricity use. That figure doesn’t reflect the costs of tackling so-called Scope 3 emissions — created further along the supply chain through things like shipping and waste — nor scaling technology like green hydrogen and electric trucks.
Another $460 billion is needed to expand copper production to meet the growing demand from renewable energy, the association said.
A central paradox of the clean-energy transition is that it requires opening mines, not just to extract more copper but also lithium, cobalt, and other metals. This will come with environmental costs, but not ones as steep as staying hooked on fossil fuels.
It can take up to two decades before a mine opens — from when metal deposits are discovered to when all the permits are approved. Local communities and Indigenous groups are often opposed to new projects, in part because of the industry’s record on environmental pollution and human-rights abuses. Political upheaval in Latin American countries like Peru, a major copper producer, has also created uncertainty.
It’s been nearly a decade since Congress authorized a land swap between the US government and BHP and Rio Tinto, which paved the way for the Resolution copper mine in Arizona. The project is located about 60 miles east of Phoenix in an area known as Oak Flat, which is sacred to the Apaches and other Native tribes.
Its fate is tied up in legal battles.