Demand for Copper Could Increase by 213 to 341 Percent

Global demand for copper could increase by up to 341 percent by 2050, and energy use is likely to increase with it – rising to a possible 2.4 percent of global energy demand in 2050, according to new researches. Policy actions to avoid such drastic changes could include improving copper recycling and using renewable technologies.

There are increasing concerns about the future supply of copper. Although copper has been used by human societies for at least 10,000 years, over 95 percent of all copper ever mined has been extracted since 1900 and more than half of the copper ever mined and smelted has been extracted in the last quarter century. Estimates suggest that copper reserves could be depleted in just 25 to 60 years.

More than that: Demand for copper is rising faster than it can be recovered from secondary sources like industrial and consumer waste such as pipes, brass and old electrical appliances and, as a result, reliance on primary copper (which must be mined) is increasing. Mining is extremely energy intensive and one of the biggest contributors to global CO2 emissions. As demand for copper increases, the quality of its copper ore is expected to decrease; accordingly the energy needed to extract copper will increase further.

To help policymakers to better plan for this future, a new study published in “Global Environmental Change“ estimated copper demand, supply and its associated energy use up until 2050. Estimates were given for four different scenarios for the future.

These are:
■    Market First (MF): A market-driven world in which demographic, economic, environmental and technological trends unfold in line with current trends. This is the ‘business as usual’ scenario.
■    Policy First (PF): Strong actions are taken by governments to reach specific social and environmental goals (especially regarding renewable energy).
■    Security First (SF): A world of inequality and conflict due to socio-economic and environmental pressures.
■    Equitability First (EF): A future of more equitable values and institutions.

Overall, the results suggest that increases in copper demand over the next four decades will be dramatic, with all scenarios requiring substantial increases in copper mining and processing.

Total demand for copper in 2050 was estimated to increase by between 213 percent and 341 percent, compared to 2010. The demand was highest in the ‘EF’ scenario, in which achieving global equity requires significant increases in metal production to meet the needs of the world’s population. Per capita GDP is the highest in this scenario, which is a good predictor of copper demand. The demand was lowest in the ‘SF’ scenario, where regional isolation and lack of income growth prevents an increase in metal use. Demand estimates for the ‘MF’ and ‘PF’ scenarios were both 275 percent, as growth in per capita GDP (on a global level) is the same in the two scenarios.

The demand for copper in all scenarios is expected to exceed copper reserves (amounts that are currently economic to mine) and the reserve base (reserves plus the copper in deposits that are not economic to mine) before 2050. Production is expected to exceed current reserves earliest in ‘EF’ by 2036, followed by the ‘MF’ and ‘PF’ scenarios by 2038 and then the ‘SF’ scenario by 2040.

Estimates of the energy required for copper primary and secondary production ranged from 0.83 percent (SF) to 2.33 percent (EF) of total global energy required for all societal uses in 2050 – compared to just 0.3 percent today. Although the highest amount of energy was required by the ‘EF’ scenario, this does not necessarily mean the highest CO2 emissions, as this scenario also has the highest share of renewable technologies.

To mitigate these negative impacts, the researchers recommend that governments encourage mineral research and exploration and provide incentives to increase rates of copper recycling. They also suggest the copper cycle could be made more efficient by reducing losses at all stages, from mining to product manufacture, and recommend reducing the amount of copper used in non-recyclable applications and re-designing existing technologies that include copper. The metal could be partially replaced with graphene, for example, which is also an excellent conductor of electricity.

Photo: O. Kürth