Is copper really the key to a low carbon economy?

Is copper really the key to a low carbon economy?

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Positioning copper in the public eye at the center of the transition to a low-carbon economy thanks to renewable energy is a priority goal of the multinational copper and mining industry.

Without copper there is no electricity

Where electricity is produced, it will need to be transported and all the necessary infrastructure for this will have copper. They contain copper generators, transformers and cables. Renewable energy also needs copper, even more. Electric vehicles require four to five times more copper than fossil fuel vehicles. A car can have up to six kilometers of copper wiring. Also windmills and solar panels contain copper. Up to 30 tons of copper can be part of just one of the largest onshore mills. The same for high power marine wind turbines (offshore) that also require copper cable to connect them to the coast.

New copper mining for the energy transition

The energy transition therefore requires thousands of tons of copper because this material is an important part of many of the infrastructures for renewable energies as it is the best conductor of energy and heat.

Today, electric vehicles demand less than 1% of copper. By 2027, the annual demand for copper for electrical transportation could be more than 6%, around 1 million 740 thousand tons (1). All this copper is going to have to be taken out of the mines somewhere and then it will have to be transported and industrially processed and transported again.

Experts on duty are acting as ambassadors of the benefits of the mining industry of the s. XXI, from academia and politics, ignoring the socio-environmental impacts on the territories where the new mining projects are located, and above all ignoring the opinion of the affected communities, who in the end know better what is coming their way than the supposed experts paid by miners, whose sole mandate is to cut costs and increase profits.

Despite the industry's efforts to claim otherwise with the most outlandish arguments, from an ecological point of view no mining project is truly sustainable. I have come to see that they even speak of "green metals" alluding to a supposed environmental friendliness. Serious ecological impacts are unavoidable in any mining project. The activity that involves risks on the water, the land and the air. And it must be recognized that from the social point of view, no mining project that is being harshly questioned in some way by the affected communities cannot be said to be sustainable either.

"Decarbonize" or generate even more carbon?

The Copper Alliance claims to work with its allies to "decarbonize" the industry globally "effectively and economically." Meanwhile, the large copper mining industry itself increases the demand for electrical energy and power with all the transport processes and logistics that it implies. If the full account is made, which is not the most common, the extraction of these material resources through mining and the construction of these wind farms and the manufacture of electric vehicles has intensive energy requirements and generates pollution and emissions of incalculable carbon.

Energy production and extractivism hand in hand

The arguments on the part of the industry in its own favor are several: it would be committed to the global goals to reduce climate change. And it goes further by arguing that it will promote energy efficiency with investments between three and nine times higher than the current ones. But that means so muchmore copper, more mining, more industry, more transportation, more fossil fuels, more climate change. Much business: in reality they are like speculative vultures waiting for the rise in prices.

That is why from my point of view this commitment is quite dubious and is more in line with the double standard of calling themselves green and friendly to the environment while continuing to do business under the sign of a good public relations and patronage apparatus. The industry knows how to make money, it only forgets many times to take into account the energy needs of the population and the previous uses that are being given to the territories or the uses that they would like to assign them in terms of rural development, and that are not possible due to the absolute lack of support and the lack of political sensitivity.

The argumentative line is completed by presenting the territory where the resource exists -in this case copper- as a key power in also key minerals. Everything is key. But mining projects are projected for a period of 15 years, up to a maximum of 25. And then they will leave behind alegacy of pollution and promises of restoration that will never be fulfilled.

Destructive and polluting inheritance

Whenever there is a demand for raw material, the industry will justify obtaining it at whatever cost, even if it compromises nature, biodiversity, communities, life in a word.

It is an unacceptable way of defining the fate of many communities, not to mention the real costs of open pit mining, hiding data, denying destruction and pollution, population displacement, the end of the way of life for many. But with regard to mining, the affected people have awakened, they are organizing themselves, they are working to publicize the situation in which a mining project that falls like a sword of Damocles in their community puts them.

And mining projects can and must be stopped when evidence shows that their socio-environmental cost is much greater than any benefit it may have for the energy transition, for growth and for the macroeconomy and offshore accounts of multinationals in tax havens. . Even if it is against the wind and the tide produced by irresponsible politicians.

The footprint of copper and the debate that remains

The extraction of copper has very serious socio-environmental impacts - even if it is destined to the implementation of renewable energies. You are consciously avoiding or ignoring this debate, which is not yet conducted in sufficient depth and sooner or later is going to have to come.

The beautiful speeches of a low-carbon world are far removed from the reality of many places affected by mining projects where raw materials such as copper come from, without public debate, and without calculating the losses that the bet on mining has for communities, for the environment and for climate.

Recycling raw materials such as copper and promoting lower and more efficient energy use is the way to go. It will be necessary to debate more in depth on the energy transition and include serious proposals for energy saving and efficiency, circular economy and post-extractivism.

If you want to read more about the green claims of the large copper industry:

Note 1According to the ICA International Copper Association

By Guadalupe Rodríguez

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