Copper needs for green transition “impossible” to meet

A report by the International Energy Forum found that manufacturing 100% electric vehicles by 2035 would require 55% more new mines than would have to open otherwise.

To meet “business-as-usual,” needs between 2018 and 2050 will require 115% more copper than has ever been mined in human history. This does not include what is necessary for electric vehicle construction and the increase in transmission capabilities needed to accommodate charging demands. Net zero by 2050 is even more implausible.

According to the report, copper mine output will increase by 82% between 2018 and 2050 due to demands from the developing world, which consumed 74% of copper refinery output in 2022. An EV future would need 55% more new mines than that baseline, and replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources like wind and solar would need 4.6 times that baseline.

Source: Copper Mining and Vehicle Electrification, International Energy Forum, May 2024.

The report notes that land access for mining exploration has become increasingly restricted, despite increasing mining exploration budgets, and notes that “after many years of effort mine permit applications have been canceled in Alaska, Minnesota … and substantial acreage has been removed from exploration in Minnesota.”

“We have been optimistic in our projected new mine creation needs,” wrote the authors, pointing to the decline in discovery, slow permitting, and future mine closures throughout the time period under study.

The report recommends that policymakers consider, instead of strict 100% EV goals, pushing toward 100% hybrid electric vehicles instead. According to the report, hybrids “require 29kg of copper compared to 24kg for an [internal combustion engine] vehicle” and life cycle emissions “are comparable with” fully-electric vehicles. Adam Simon, a professor of earth and environmental studies at the University of Michigan and coauthor of the report, said “a Toyota Prius actually has a slightly better impact on climate than a Tesla.”

Consumers should be free to choose whatever vehicle makes most sense for their needs, not pushed into 100% electric or 100% hybrid options. However, the report concludes with a statement that I can heartily agree with:

“For the longer term, it is important that copper exploration and mine development be encouraged, starting now. The EU and US should demonstrate on their own territories that increasingly responsible mining can be carried out and thereby prove that they consider mining to be important and are willing to do their share of it.”

If the U.S. wants to meet the demand for AI data centers, cell phones, and the many “business-as-usual” ways that we use minerals — let alone try to meet unworkable mandates for 100% vehicle electrification — it should promote domestic mining.