The Red Metal for a Greener World


Jorge Cantallopts,

Director of Studies and Public Policies,


There is significant evidence that the transformation to a greener economy will involve many changes in infrastructure, especially those related to power generation and transmission, but also transportation, including electric vehicles and supporting infrastructure. A greener and more connected world will require more electronic sensors and devices in smart cities and smart houses. The new society model will also increase the need for climate control devices in households, offices, public transportation, and public buildings.

These new developments involve many raw materials, where copper, the old and well-known red metal, stands out, playing a vital role in a greener world.

According to the World Bank, climate change and the deployment of green technologies (including wind and solar generation and electric vehicles) could increase copper demand between 7.5 and 20 million mt by 2050, depending on the scenario for climate change. Other highly copper-intensive technologies are likely to increase this estimate, such as electric vehicle charging infrastructure, climate change mitigation devices, air conditioners, fans or heaters, intelligent technologies in households and public infrastructures in cities.

Many challenges for the transition to a greener economy come from the supply perspective. Responsible sourcing of raw materials plays a prominent role. Despite efforts toward increasing recycling and implementing a circular economy model, mining will still be a critical aspect of the supply chain in the foreseeable future. If we assume a conservative demand forecast of 15 million copper mt by 2050 (500 thousand mt of new supply each year), the pressure on the copper supply chain will be significant. For example, only two mines in the world produced more than 500 thousand mt of copper. It is not clear where supply will come from.

When we think about the future, there are many images of how we envision a greener world, but there is a lack of understanding of how raw materials will be supplied for this purpose. As a contribution to this matter, Chile is already planning and developing what a greener world will mean for copper mining in terms of water, energy and the relationship with society.

Green copper mining will be efficient in reducing operational water footprints. The Chilean mining industry has already reduced freshwater use by 23% from 2010 to 2019. Cochilco forecasts that only 51% of water consumption will come from underground and surface sources by 2030. In addition, the water recycling rate in copper mining is around 80%, and most new projects will use new water sources, such as seawater and other water-efficient technologies.

Green copper mining will be carbon-free. In Chile, due to the integration of electrical systems in the mining industry, the indirect greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by 20% from 2017 to 2019. Furthermore, the copper mining companies have played a key role in the surprising change in the Chilean energy matrix, which is rapidly shifting to renewables. During the subsequent years, copper mining will be directly or indirectly involved in new renewable capacity in Chile. Renewable sources, mostly photovoltaic, will supply around 58% of the Chilean mining industry requirements by 2023. Additionally, the potential of green hydrogen technology could become an excellent opportunity for sustainable development, not only for Chile but also for the rest of the Latin American region.

Green mining involves much more than water and energy, and this is why there are other initiatives in Chile related to inclusion and increasing the participation of women in mining; increasing acknowledgement and contribution to indigenous people; and local development for surrounding communities and a strong respect for human rights. A new relationship with society requires a new deal with mining. Since 2019, Chile has been developing a long-term participatory strategy as part of the 2050 National Mining Policy. This is an opportunity to put mining in the perspective of a more sustainable future.

The way that we mine falls short of meeting the vision of a green economy, but it is also clear that sustainable mining is the way for the industry to remain as a global critical economic pillar. It is also a challenge for Chile, not only to maintain its production leadership in copper supply, but also to be a leader in responsible sourcing for a greener world.

Image courtesy of CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash