Copper Shortfall Threatens Green Energy Transition, Warns Report

The IEF recommends switching from the goal of 100% EVs to hybrids by 2035

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Copper mining may be unable to keep pace with soaring demand for the metal that anchors the transition to electric vehicles and renewable energy sources, warns a report from the International Energy Forum (IEF).

Under a baseline business-as-usual scenario, the world will need to mine 905 million tons of copper between 2018 and 2050 – 115% more than the 757 million tons mined before 2018.

Meanwhile, electrifying the global fleet of vehicles would require a 55% increase in new mine output compared to baseline trends. This equates to bringing 54 major new copper mines into production by 2050, requiring an unprecedented 1.7 new mines to open annually over the next decade.

An electric vehicle (EV) is manufactured using 60 kg of copper, compared to 24 kg for an internal combustion engine (ICE) automobile. However, the copper needed for the electrification of vehicles goes beyond just manufacturing; it will also be required for grid upgrades to support charging.

Transitioning the entire global energy system away from fossil fuels to renewable sources like wind and solar by 2050 would require a 460% increase in copper mine production – equivalent to developing 194 major new copper mines beyond baseline levels in just 26 years.

Copper needed by 2050The report states that it is “highly improbable” that there will be sufficient new mines to meet the surging demands from vehicle electrification and the energy transition on the desired timelines under current policies and industry outlooks.

Copper resources in the earth’s crust are enough to satisfy long-term global needs estimated at 6.6 billion tons. However, the rate at which prospective deposits can be identified, permitted through often-contested regulatory processes, and then developed into operating mines is challenging. On average, it takes over two decades between discovering a copper deposit and start production.

Despite a surge in mining exploration budgets, a mere 16 out of the 224 copper deposits unearthed after 1990 were discovered within the last decade.

Environmental opposition has also derailed some high-profile proposed copper mines, including Alaska’s Pebble Mine, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency blocked in 2023 over potential impacts on salmon fisheries.

The report said other projects also face permitting delays, such as the Resolution copper mine in Arizona, which has yet to receive final approval despite being approved by U.S. Congress back in 2014.

Earlier this year, the Indian state of Karnataka launched an auction of exploration licenses for copper and lithium. The auction will permit the exploration licensee to undertake reconnaissance and prospecting operations for the minerals.

EVs vs Hybrids

Considering these challenges, the report recommends that policymakers shift from a goal of 100% EV production by 2035 to 100% hybrid vehicles. This would require just 37 new major mines beyond baseline levels, compared to 54 for EVs.

Hybrid cars use slightly more copper per vehicle than ICE vehicles but far less than battery-electric models. Notably, the report finds comparable life cycle emissions for hybrid and battery electric vehicles.

The report also calls for policies supporting land access for exploration, capital incentives for developing deeper underground mines, acceleration of environmental studies into seabed mining of copper, and closely monitoring global copper mining and recycling trends versus projected business-as-usual trajectories.

Additionally, an uptick in copper recycling will be needed to mitigate a supply shortfall of 8.1 million metric tons per year (Mtpy) by 2035 and 9.6 Mtpy by 2040.

The report warned that a failure to secure adequate future copper supply could trigger price spikes, hamper sustainable economic development in poorer nations, and undermine decarbonization efforts aimed at mitigating climate change.

The market for copper used in EVs, wind turbines, solar panels, and other technologies critical to the clean energy transition has doubled over the past five years, the International Energy Agency said last year.

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