The copper industry’s outlook on the benefits of a competitive European copper industry

Copper and its many alloys are characterised by their 100% recyclability, their superior technical properties, such as high electrical and thermal conductivity, their ability to be easily processed, and their durability. These benefits reinforce the European copper industry outlook: copper stands at the centre of many of the technologies that will drive Europe’s future competitiveness.

Copper has a significant positive impact on climate change mitigation, by improving energy efficiency, lowering energy demand and enabling renewable technologies. The EU’s 20/20/20 energy targets cannot be met without an increased use of copper products. As one example, electric motors consume about 60% of industrial electricity demand. Full implementation of the Minimum Energy Performance Standards for electric motors (published in OJ L 191/26) will require a typical 50% increase in the copper content in the motor windings. This will deliver electricity savings of 135 TWh/year (more than the combined annual electricity consumption of Finland and Greece) and will avoid 63 million tonnes/year of CO2 emissions. As another example, if every EU citizen used 1 m2 of solar thermal capacity to generate hot water, it would save 80 million tonnes/year of CO2 emissions.

The vision of a lower carbon transportation system, delivered by affordable, hybrid and electric vehicles, connected to smart grids, along with high-speed rail networks, requires copper. A hybrid passenger car contains 50 kg of copper for the electric motor, energy storage and transfer system. Each high-speed train requires 10 tonnes of copper components, plus 10 tonnes in the power and communication cables per kilometre of track. Low carbon electricity sources, such as renewables, and the distributed electricity systems required to incorporate and manage them, need four to ten times the copper content of electricity produced via centralised, fossil fuel generation.

The copper industry is continuing to invest in innovative technologies to improve the environmental and economic performance, as well as the resource efficiency, of its products. Copper’s role in computer chips and information technology equipment has helped to realise the digital age. A highly visible example of resource efficiency is the impact that very thin, high-performance copper alloys have had on the miniaturisation of everyday items such as mobile phones, computers, cameras and portable music devices.

One overarching benefit is copper’s ability to be recycled, again and again, without any loss in performance. 41% of the EU’s 2011 copper demand was met through the recycling of end-of-life products and offcuts from the downstream value chain. This makes copper one of the most sustainable natural resources.

Driven by its social responsibility, market forces and EU policies, the copper industry has also invested heavily in improving its own energy consumption, in reducing its environmental emissions and in process technologies to recycle increasingly complex end-of-life products, such as electric and electronic scrap. All these advances are well documented in the BREF notes (Best Available Technology) under the Integrated Pollution and Prevention Control (IPPC) Directive. The EU now has the cleanest and most energy efficient copper smelters in the world. Despite 30% of current energy consumption being used for environmental protection (e.g. air filters and wastewater treatment), since 1995, the energy consumption per tonne of production has decreased by 54%. In addition, sulphur dioxide emissions are only 8% of the rest of the world average.