Due to its applications in electrification and clean energy, copper is essential for the transition to a low-carbon economy, but copper must be produced responsibly to truly enable a sustainable future. The International Copper Association (ICA) and its members are committed to advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and responsible production practices are a crucial first step for the industry in meeting these objectives. Safer, cleaner and less wasteful extraction is crucial not only to ensuring resource availability for green technologies but also for the well-being of local communities and ecosystems. ICA’s members are developing innovative solutions to safeguard worker safety, protect local populations, conserve water in the mining process, decarbonize operations and reduce waste.
Implementing SDG 9 to improve sustainability in copper production
SDG 9 calls for resilient infrastructure and sustainable industrialization that fosters innovation. By implementing state-of-the-art technologies and practices throughout the production process, ICA members can advance multiple SDGs while minimizing negative impacts on local communities, workers and the environment. Despite the copper industry’s progress over time, there remains substantial room for improvement. Driving down injury rates, improving resource efficiency, decarbonizing operations, reclaiming mine sites and operating as responsible stewards of the environment are top priorities for ICA’s members. Achieving these goals and minimizing disruptive impacts takes significant investment in new technologies, as well as dedication to rethinking how the copper industry operates.
Innovating for People
A sustainable industry must include safe and secure working environments. New technologies are transforming the mining and metals industry, making it safer and cleaner.
According to the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) 2021 safety data, the most common associated hazard attributed to fatalities in mining is mobile equipment. Many ICA members take part in ICMM’s Innovation for Cleaner, Safer Vehicles initiative, which brings members together with some of the world’s largest original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to accelerate the development of a new generation of mining vehicles and improve existing vehicles. ICA members use technology to increase vehicle safety and reduce reliance on any given individual’s performance, which is often a cause of vehicle-related incidents. At Teck and Rio Tinto, for example, in-vehicle monitoring systems and autonomous vehicles reduce the risk of injuries. Automated loaders and trucks enable Codelco to mine safer and more efficiently. BHP and Glencore utilize fatigue-monitoring technologies at their Escondida and Compañía Minera Lomas Bayas copper mines, respectively, to evaluate sleep habits and alert operators if they are at risk to operate machinery unsafely.
These enhanced features directly contribute to SDG 3 (Good Health and Wellbeing) and SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), and they allow the industry to continue to generate jobs, often in areas where safe, well-paid local employment opportunities are scarce.
Protecting miners is also good for the environment. There is growing link between automation, improving safety conditions, and reducing environmental impacts of mine production. Enhanced safety features often mean more efficient machinery and optimized monitoring of mine conditions, improving resource usage and further contributing to SDGs, such as SDG 12 (Responsible Production and Consumption).
Innovating for the Planet
Mining is a resource intensive operation, requiring significant amounts of water, energy and equipment. The process also produces large quantities of waste that need to be processed responsibly. As ore grades decline for most metals, including copper, more resources will be needed to extract larger quantities of ore, generating more waste. To address these challenges, innovative mining practices and advanced technologies are needed to change the face of mining around the world.
As water scarcity issues worsen around the world, water management has become an even more important aspect of mining operations. Essential to the extractive process, water is employed throughout copper production in processes such as drilling and hydrometallurgical flotation. It is also applied at the mine site as a spray to minimize airborne particles, as a coolant in deep operations and as a transport medium to convey slurry. Though mining will always need water, innovations in technological processes will undoubtedly advance the recovery and recycling of water in mining operations. In 2020, 67 percent of operational water requirements for copper production at surveyed ICA members’ sites were met by recycled and reused water.
Energy and Emissions
The topic of energy cuts across the SDGs, from SDG 7, which calls for affordable and sustainable energy for all, to SDG 13 (Climate Action) and SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), which includes a target to improve resource efficiency and consumption in production. Renewable energy systems require copper to generate power from solar, hydro and thermal power. However, to fully contribute to energy-related SDGs, the industry must also improve energy efficiency in copper production and shift toward a greater use of renewable energy in operations. The average energy intensity per tonne of finished copper product at surveyed members’ operations was 45 GJ in 2020. Declining ore grades have caused energy intensity to gradually increase over time, but innovations in mining and processing technologies have enabled the industry to increase productivity and extend the lifetime of existing mines, as well as reduce emissions associated with mining. Within the mining process, loading and hauling account for the greatest proportion of energy consumption due to heavy reliance on diesel operated vehicles. ICA members Antofagasta, Codelco and Teck are electrifying large mining equipment, such as mine haulage trucks, to reduce emissions.
A mine’s choice of energy source is often dictated by the energy mix available. Yet companies can still influence emissions by entering into more sustainable power purchasing agreements and moving away from fossil-fuel-based sources of energy. Many ICA members have already committed to switch to 100 percent clean and renewable power at their sites, such as Freeport’s Minera El Abra and Teck’s Carmen De Andecollo.
Several hundred metric tonnes of ore must be processed for each metric tonne of copper produced, generating large volumes of waste and the need for responsible management of that waste to protect human health and the environment. Mining equipment and machinery has a finite use period. To better contribute to SDG 12 (Responsible Production and Consumption), circular economy principles, such as keeping products and materials in use and repurposing materials at their end of life, must be introduced within the primary production process. Freeport-McMoRan is doing this by initiating partnerships to rebuild their haul trucks, allowing Freeport to reuse approximately 70 percent of its fleet and recycle and reclaim its mining equipment tires.
Tailings, which are the fine rock particles and associated waste left over after extracting copper from the ore, are a common byproduct of mining. When managed properly, they are a safe and effective way to separate wastes from communities and ecosystems. KGHM’s revolutionary Zelazny Most Tailings Storage Facility, which uses the tailings themselves to seal and build up the facility, is an example of an innovative and responsible solution that eliminates the need for additional materials in waste management. This technology reduces water loss and ground infiltration while decreasing water and land use by compacting tailings. Innovative tailings management not only enhances safety, but it also contributes to the circular economy by limiting the accumulation of copper tailings in the environment and repurposing them into useful materials. BHP’s Tailings Challenge, a global competition that seeks to promote the development of innovative solutions for repurposing copper tailings, sparked Chilean researchers to transform tailings into construction materials.
Providing responsibly sourced copper is essential to answering society’s mandate for sustainably produced products while meeting the increasing copper demand resulting from the green transition. Work stills needs to be done to improve performance and track progress across the entire copper value chain. By continuing to employ innovative technologies and adopting advanced leadership practices across the industry, copper can further contribute to the clean energy transition and make cities and communities more sustainable.