The concept of critical minerals has gained significant attention across the world stage, particularly in the context of the clean energy transition. Naturally occurring in the earth’s crust, these minerals, such as copper, are vital to modern technology, promoting energy efficiency, driving the decarbonization process and contributing to reduced greenhouse gas emissions. As countries strive to achieve their sustainability goals, the demand for these minerals continues to grow, prompting discussions on the challenges and opportunities facing the green transition.
At the Concordia Annual Summit, a panel of experts gathered to share their insights on what the clean energy transition means for critical raw materials. As a lead programming partner, ICA’s North American Regional Director and President & CEO of the Copper Development Association, Andy Kireta Jr., joined Gracelin Baskaran from the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Lisa Jacobson, President of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy; Karin Svensson, Chief Sustainability Officer at Volvo; and Lawrence Deschampbenoit, Global Head of External Affairs at Rio Tinto. The panelists discussed the role critical minerals play, why primary and secondary materials will be needed, and how to meet growing demand for these valuable resources.
Both Recycling and Mining Will Be Needed to Meet Demand
Industry and policymakers are currently prioritizing critical minerals due to their crucial role in addressing climate change and ensuring energy access for billions of people. Critical minerals, such as copper, exist everywhere—in grids, power generation, green infrastructure and energy storage. Copper stands out as a durable and versatile material, possessing exceptional heat and thermal conductivity, making it the preferred choice for energy-efficient applications. However, these applications often have long lifespans and can remain in productive use for up to 50 years. While these applications save energy when in use due to copper’s energy efficient properties, it also means that copper remains in the urban mine longer, making it less available for immediate recycling. This is one reason recycling alone will not suffice to meet the growing demands for critical minerals, including copper. The clean energy transition demands accelerated access to these vital materials to achieve policy goals. An all-encompassing approach that includes sourcing primary materials responsibly while improving recycling processes and infrastructure will be needed to meet demand.
Though approximately 32 percent of the total global copper demand is met with recycled copper and 56 percent of pre- and post-consumer copper scrap is recycled, there are untapped opportunities to enhance recycling infrastructure and streamline secondary processing recovery. Policy initiatives should consider these downstream aspects to efficiently incorporate recycled materials into the value stream and promote the responsible use of copper and other critical minerals for multiple lifetimes to enable a more circular economy.
Social License to Operate Requires Sustainable and Responsible Production
As global demand for critical minerals continues to rise, policymakers need to focus on making sure critical minerals are sourced and utilized in the most environmentally sustainable manner. New mines can take, on average, around 16 years to reach production from initial discovery. Partnership between industry and policymakers is needed to accelerate these processes for new production. To ensure demand is met responsibly, mines must continue to earn their social license to operate. Stable regulatory environments and efficient permitting timelines can help to increase production; at the same time both producers and policymakers ensure localized, sustainable mine designs are in place to positively lift local economies while minimizing environmental impacts. Uniting on this front can lead to better information sharing, meaningful cross-sectoral partnerships and repurposing policy frameworks to help secure a stable production of critical minerals. Environmentally friendly production practices, stakeholder trust and connection with local communities will continue to be essential to extracting critical materials.
In March 2023, ICA and its members launched Copper—The Pathway to Net Zero, a global decarbonization roadmap for the copper industry, outlining member’s ambitious goals to reach net-zero Scope 1 and 2 emissions and to bring Scope 3 emissions as close as possible to zero by 2050. This transition to clean production, as well as increased mining efficiencies, innovations, automations and nature-positive solutions employed in modern mines, will continue to be part of the efforts by ICA and its members to ensure the responsible and sustainable production of copper to meet growing demand and provide the foundation for a sustainable world.