On Copper Mining Misconceptions

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Sustainability objectives coupled with innovation are transforming the way in which copper is extracted

COP26 provided the opportunity for the international community to collectively set goals and strategize on the actions needed to stop climate change. While the focus has long been on sovereign governments setting national goals, it is clear more ambitious action is necessary. To achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and keep global warming under 1.5°C, industry has a crucial role to play, not only in reducing emissions, but in supplying the ingredients for a low-carbon transition. Copper is a key enabler of energy-efficient technologies needed for decarbonization and the clean energy transition. The world emits around 50 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHG) each year, with 0.7 percent of that number coming from the manufacturing of nonferrous metals, and approximately one third of that percentage comes from copper production. International Copper Association’s (ICA) industry-leading members continue to strive to improve their sustainability credentials. Despite these facts, many misconceptions surrounding copper mining, and mining in general, persist.

Mining is often associated with images of rudimentary tools and inefficient, outdated technologies. While the need for improvement in innovative and responsible practices will always be present, ICA members are continuing to advance technology and safety practices. These innovations include technologies that might not be traditionally associated with popular conceptions about the mining process, such as the use of robotics and automated vehicles for riskier tasks, using biometrics for workers to monitor fatigue, employing artificial intelligence to prevent equipment malfunctions before they happen, and automating physically demanding processes.

Sustainability and decarbonization are top items on the agendas of copper mining companies and ICA member CEOs. ICA members utilize vast amounts of data to improve decision making, invest heavily in technological advancements, carry out due diligence of the supply chain, meet increasing demand through a combination of recycling and sustainable mining, implement decarbonization strategies and work to act responsibly toward their employees, local communities, customers and the environment.

ICA members have long understood the importance of corporate social responsibility, the need to reduce their carbon footprint and to extract resources sustainably. This is a continuous effort for the copper mining industry and all mining industries, and ICA will keep supporting its members in their actions to continuously improve ESG outcomes. Globally, solutions for reducing GHG emissions and meeting the Paris Agreement goals rely on copper, and copper continues to be essential to the green transition. ICA members are aware of their role in supporting a sustainable future and the increasing duty to do so in a responsible way.

Misconception #1: There is no need for more mining to meet copper demand

As part of the transition to electrification and a greener economy, demand for renewables, electric vehicles, greater energy efficiency and electrification is increasing rapidly. Copper’s natural properties make it a key material for these technologies. The World Bank argues that clean-energy technologies are more material intensive and greater numbers of minerals and metals will be needed. Demand for copper is already on the rise and is expected to increase over the coming years. However, a common misconception is that there is not enough copper in the ground to meet this rising demand, or alternatively, that the demand can be met entirely through recycling.

According to USGS data, since 1950 there has always been, on average, 40 years of copper reserves and over 200 years of resources left. Rising copper demand can be met through a combination of sustainable mining and recycling. Thirty percent of global demand is already met with recycled copper, and the current global end-of-life recycling rate for copper is 40 percent. However, recycling alone cannot satisfy the growing demand, given the long lifespan of products using copper, which limits the availability of the secondary material supplied by recycling.

Scientists have indicated that the public will need to accept greater mining activity if the world is to meet the challenge of going green, confirming earlier findings by the World Bank. The mining industry needs to do its part by improving the environmental performance of its operations while supplying the world with the commodities needed for the clean energy transition.

Among other initiatives, the Copper Mark is an assurance framework to promote responsible production practices. Initially developed by ICA, the Copper Mark has been a separate organization since December 2019. It works with companies and organizations across the copper industry and the wider value chain, enabling them to meet the increasing demands for independently verified responsible production practices

Misconception #2: Mining cannot be green

Copper is an essential material in the transition to a low-carbon economy based on electrification with less dependence on fossil fuels. As such, sustainable copper mining will play a key part in the shift toward a greener economy. Many sustainable solutions central to decarbonization—including renewable energy infrastructure (e.g., windmills), electric vehicles and the decarbonization of buildings —rely on copper.

ICA members understand that a low-carbon economy not only needs copper for clean technologies, but it also requires them to ensure their own environmental responsibility.

Members of ICA invest more than $19 billion a year in sustainable-development efforts, according to ICA’s 2018 Sustainable Development Indicators. In fact, the copper industry has already reduced its per-unit energy consumption by 60 percent since 1990. ICA members support the World Bank Climate-Smart Mining Facility, the first-ever fund dedicated to making mining for minerals climate smart and sustainable. ICA members also conduct their own life cycle assessments, from mining to smelting and refining, which show the areas they need to focus on to improve environmental performance.

Finally, mine reclamation is a crucial element in the copper industry’s environmental toolbox. ICA’s sustainability-conscious members are committed to taking responsibility to restore mining sites after extraction and closing of mining operations. A common misconception is that land becomes useless after extraction, but many countries require operators to submit a rehabilitation plan before starting operations. Numerous copper mines have been restored to create parkswoodlands, or farmlandsReclaiming sites and making commitments to protect biodiversity are important aspects of responsible environmental stewardship in the copper mining sector.

Part of responsible environmental stewardship is in tailings management. Tailings are physical waste left over from the mining process, A perception of decreasing ore grade is often touted as a harbinger of increasing environmental impact from the extraction process, leading to an increase in physical waste. However, it would be premature to conclude that higher-grade resources are no longer available and, therefore, that there would be a continuing increase in waste rock and tailings deposits. In addition, increasing innovations or mining efficiencies may allow for lower grade ores to be recovered sustainably, increasing the amount of metal available without excessive increases in physical waste. Increased demand for waste-rock for use in aggregate or other metal by-products may also lead to more opportunities for circular production processes and industrial symbiosis.

Mining tailings can be managed in responsible ways. Many ICA members adhere to the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management, which addresses responsible waste management practices in connection with the local communities, knowledge training for informed decision making, smart design and monitoring of tailings operations, accountable management and review processes, emergency response preparedness and long-term recovery, and public disclosure of standards and progress. In addition, innovations in tailings management, such as dry, stackable tailings, which some ICA members are employing, contribute to responsible resource and water management.

Misconception #3: Mining is not safe or socially responsible

Like all resource extraction activities and much of heavy industrial production, copper mining also has inherent risks, but ICA members take safety and social responsibility very seriously. Member companies are pursuing initiatives to lessen negative societal impacts and to leverage their technology, expertise, and funding to support local communities. Operations and decision making are carefully planned to ensure the highest standards of security and safety for workers, employees and local communities.

Advances in technology drive improvements in worker safety, automate processes, reduce accidents and mitigate risks. ICA members fuel economic and societal growth by creating jobs, supporting diversity and inclusion initiatives, investing in research and development, providing leadership in the circular economy and spurring innovation.

Data from the International Council of Mining and Metals (ICMM), shows decreases in accidents and fatalities for the overall mining industry. According to ICA’s 2018 Sustainable Development Indicators, ICA members achieved an important reduction in injury rates thanks to significant investment in equipment and training, as well as industrywide use of the OHSAS 18001 (industrial safety and health protection) certification.

Additionally, ICA is an association member of ICMM, and both organizations share members. ICMM’s Mining Principles clearly articulate strong ethical standards and policies, subject to an assurance and validation procedure, requiring member companies to publicly report on their performance and provide annual assurance of these reports from an independent third party using recognized assurance standards.

26 January 2022

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Laurent Chokoualé Datou

Mining has changed. Learn more about global mining innovations from ICA's members.