Raw Materials for a Clean Future

A low-carbon future relies on many materials, including metals. There can be no wind or solar energy, nor electric vehicles, without copper, aluminium or steel, to name but a few.

As we produce more renewable energy and increase the energy efficiency of our products and systems, policymakers need to consider the role of raw materials. As such, the Copper Alliance welcomes the second edition of EU Raw Materials Week, taking place in Brussels 6–9 November, providing a timely opportunity to have a conversation about vital raw materials.

Europe’s current energy consumption is highly dependent on imports of oil and natural gas, with associated geopolitical unpredictability and price volatility. A future low-carbon Europe will continue to depend on imported energy and materials, but strategic planning will allow us to significantly reduce the surrounding uncertainties.

This strategic planning should consider three ‘axes’:

  1. Accelerate the energy transition—the transition to a low-carbon economy will not happen overnight. With discussions on the Clean Energy Package in full swing, the right course needs to be set now to define Europe’s future, greener and smarter energy systems, while recognising the increasing role of electrification.
  2. Closing the loop—increased recycling, life cycle and circular thinking holds huge potential to minimise cost and reduce carbon emissions.
  3. Access to raw materials—policymakers need to factor in abundance, availability, geopolitical risks, recyclability and carbon emissions when it comes to critical materials.

The European copper industry has a strong focus on all these factors:

  • In terms of abundance and availability: There are plentiful copper reserves in Europe, where the red metal continues to be mined in countries including Bulgaria, Sweden, Poland, Turkey, Portugal, Spain and Finland. The bulk of Europe’s annual copper imports comes from Chile (more than 220,000 tonnes) and Peru (more than 275,000 tonnes), both stable democracies with strong ties to Europe, which means there are no current geo-strategic risks associated with its increased use.
  • Regarding recyclability: Copper can be recycled endlessly, and today 50% of European copper use comes from recycled material (source: ICSG). Copper recycling also facilitates the recycling of silver, gold and nickel, and this provides essential materials with a low-carbon footprint that in turn helps reduce the negative consequences of increased electronic waste. There is room to grow that recycling percentage, but it requires positive political signals and incentives so companies are not penalised through the EU Emission Trading Scheme for the extra energy utilised to turn—for example—e-waste into pure copper.
  • It is clear our carbon footprint needs to be reduced, in Europe and around the globe. 195 countries adopted the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal during COP21. For maximum impact, we need to go beyond this, looking at the upfront ‘costs’ of producing the energy in the first place, and focusing on minimising emissions from a life cycle perspective. This includes the emissions from raw materials and end-of-life emissions. As an example, copper production consumes a significant amount of energy (though less than competing materials), but once produced, the material can be recycled over and over again. In the long run, therefore, the upfront energy investments are largely recouped. We must also not forget that products containing copper tend to operate more efficiently thanks to the intrinsic qualities of copper, which make it the best non-precious conductor for electricity, heating and cooling.

Similarly, more can be done with ‘by-products’ from copper production. An existing example of this is slag, which is used in road construction. This material—which would otherwise go to waste—is used in place of virgin materials. Additionally, the surplus heat from production can be used to generate electricity to power local districts. While this does already happen, it is only sporadic, not least because the incentives are currently weak.

In short: the discourse on Europe’s low-carbon future needs to integrate more holistic thinking when it comes to the sourcing of both energy and materials. It needs to minimise geopolitical risks, and it should include a circular and life cycle approach, including manufacturing, production and end-of-life recyclability of all energy infrastructure. The various Commission initiatives need to enable sustainable mindsets by rewarding and facilitating circular thinking.

McKinsey recently concluded the transition to a low-carbon future could increase copper demand by more than 40%. Demand for several other metals is equally on the rise. The EU needs to create the right framework now to ensure the security of demand for copper and other raw materials that contribute to our sustainable future.

Fleming Voetmann, Vice President, International Copper Association