Supply of copper is secured despite rising demand

The growing use of a multitude of different metals in innovative technologies leads to an increasing dependence in the supply of raw materials. Conversely, supply shortages can have a significant impact on individual companies and entire industries. 

For copper as well, geological and geographical degradation is becoming increasingly difficult, even though global availability is secured in the long term due to the available resources and reserves. At the same time, international supply chain compliance regulations, such as the US Dodd-Frank Act or the relevant EU regulation in force from 2021, define binding supply chain due diligence that presents many companies with major challenges.

Although copper is not among the group of conflict minerals, the copper industry is interested in showing the industry’s contribution to sustainable development. The members of the International Copper Association (ICA) have therefore introduced a new program: The so-called “Copper Mark” is to provide as a security system for responsible copper production. The aim is to improve the sector’s contribution to sustainable development by making the performance of copper mines and copper producers verifiable.

Inspired by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the Copper Mark pursues a comprehensive approach to sustainability, including a credible review of practices at copper production sites, including mines, smelters and refineries. Unlike many existing initiatives that follow a standard audit certification model, the program is based on facilitating the information flow at the site level, on risk management practices, and on public reporting of the positive impact on the ground. The voluntary initiative will be overseen by an independent body in the first quarter of 2020, led by a multi-stakeholder body.

Sustainable supply of raw materials must be guaranteed

“Companies often face major challenges in the practical implementation of international guidelines and laws in global commodity markets. That’s why international initiatives are important in establishing responsible supply chains, as well as supporting information on supply chains and production conditions to effectively implement existing management and reporting requirements. ” Gudrun Franken of the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR).

As the most important supplier of raw materials, the international mining industry continues to face high challenges. The limited access to new areas of exploration in politically unstable regions, the consideration of environmental constraints and social aspects as well as the often lack of acceptance for the extraction of raw materials in the industrialized nations make the progress of exploration difficult especially for raw materials, which are needed for high-tech applications.

“Critical Raw Materials (CRM)” Franks, “are those commodities that are economically and strategically important to the European economy, but whose supply is subject to increased risk. These materials are used in new technologies (eg renewable energy and electromobility), consumer electronics, healthcare, steelmaking, defense, space exploration and aeronautics, and are critical not only for key industries and future applications, but also for the sustainable functioning of European economy. They have a high supply risk due to the high import dependency and the high concentration of producers in certain countries, “says the expert.

Michael Sander, Managing Director of the Deutschen Kupferinstituts: “The geopolitical risks of the copper market are generally considered to be uncritical or moderately critical so the commodity risk assessment copper of the German Raw Materials Agency in 2013 and the European Commission does not include copper according to their current list the critical raw materials; however, copper, as an important high-performance material with unique properties, is at least indirectly affected because copper and its alloys are an indispensable material in modern technologies. And of course, our industry must be sure to ensure access to the raw materials needed in the long term. In 2017 alone, 1.2 million tonnes of copper ore and concentrates were imported to Germany. ”

The most important use of copper in Germany is the use in the cable and electrical industry with 57 percent of the total volume. The construction industry requires 15 percent of copper, the automotive industry 9 percent, and the mechanical engineering industry 8 percent. Five percent of the consumption go into the trade, the remainder accounts for other branches of industry. (WVM 2018) Technologies such as electromobility will increase demand even further, with worldwide demand for copper rising steadily for years (2011: around 20 million t, 2018:> 24 million t). In Europe, copper production was about 3.6 million tonnes in 2017. In Germany, more than 730,000 tonnes of copper were produced in the same year.

Urban mining as a source of raw materials

For Germany and Europe, this development means that the supply of raw materials in the future can not be guaranteed solely through imports, but also that the increase in resource efficiency is gaining in importance. Dr. Ladji Tikana, expert on life-cycle assessments at the German Copper Institute: “As part of our life-cycle work, we naturally evaluate the effects of resource extraction and use. In a consortium with various industrial partners and the TU Berlin, we have even developed a method for the holistic assessment of resource efficiency, taking into account socio-economic raw material availability, which now serves to optimize the resource efficiency of products, processes and services. “Not least because of high demand, recycling is playing an increasingly important role in supplying industry with raw materials. Increasing recycling is making a significant contribution to improving the supply of raw materials in Europe, as demand for technology-relevant metals such as copper will continue to increase until 2035, as the German Raw Materials Agency points out in the study “Raw Materials for the Future Technology”.

“Unfortunately, we have to learn again and again that copper is mistaken for many users as a limited amount of raw material that is no longer available for products at some point,” said Kupferinstituts managing director Sander and further explains: “In the period 2007 to 2017 were 192 million Tons of copper mined. However, reserves grew by 300 million tonnes over the same period. This reflects the additional exploration as well as the technological advances and the developing economy of the mining industry. According to current figures, the reserves last for around 43 years and the resources for almost 190 years – values ​​that have remained at the same level for decades. 80 percent of the copper ever produced is still in use today. Not the existing quantities are therefore the problem

“At the same time, almost 50 percent of European copper demand is currently covered by recycled materials, ie by so-called secondary raw materials – and that without any loss of quality,” Dr. Tikana. “This also has environmental benefits: in addition to reducing waste and protecting scarce resources, copper recovery from common applications such as motors, transformers and cables, which are the main material, consumes up to 85 percent less energy than in the United States Primary production. “For 2016, the International Copper Study Group (ICSG) estimates that 29 percent of the world’s copper consumption now comes from recycled copper.

For the future, therefore, it remains valid that copper is uncritically available due to the defined reserves and resources as well as its infinite recyclability. The copper industry has also committed itself to sustainability and delivery transparency due to voluntary commitments; Arguments that speak – in addition to the immense importance of the raw material as a technology metal – for an unrestricted use of copper and copper alloys.