The era for decarbonisation of upstream copper extraction

The era for decarbonisation of upstream copper extraction

The response by industrial sectors to take climate action and achieve a lower carbon economy is rapidly and fundamentally shifting the demand and supply response for numerous industrial inputs including copper.

Copper plays an increasingly critical role to facilitate a lower carbon transition through its diverse real-world applications for clean energy and transportation. Demand for copper-based products is also rising with global urbanisation and middle class growth in modernising economies.

The extractive method and process of copper mining however have remained mostly unchanged for many years, and copper mining contributes to climate change through direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions. The process of copper mining bears similarity to other types of minerals and metal extraction methods that as noted by Azadi et al. (2020) that are energy intensive and host associated sub-processes that release carbon dioxide.1 The overall mining sector contribution to global energy use is estimated at 11%,2 and it is estimated that greenhouse gas emissions associated with mineral extraction were equivalent to approximately 10% of the total global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in 2018.3

The impacts of climate change will affect the copper mining sector in various ways, both directly and indirectly, including the potential to damage fixed assets, disrupt supply chains, impair production performance and adversely influence challenges related to water management.4

The copper industry has recognized the need to decarbonize its production processes. The application of innovation and technological breakthroughs to respond to how energy is sourced, consumed and abated should be analysed and prioritised to meet these objectives.

Incremental and breakthrough innovation such as electrification and the digitalisation of traditional processes are demonstrating operational productivity and efficiency gains that are influencing producers to further reconsider strategies related to the utilisation of existing assets and the optimisation of current energy systems. The application of innovation brings about momentum to re-think what is possible through a combination of solutions, pathways and delivery frameworks.

As noted by the International Council of Mining and Metals (ICMM),5 it is possible that producers who address climate adaptation through a lens that includes innovation adoption strategies can demonstrate commercial benefits such as cost reduction, preserved or enhance revenues, improved stakeholder relationships, improved market positioning and new business opportunities.

Insights into future developments, real-world application and guidance into how and when to apply innovation to achieve a reduced emission outcome will equip producers with the ability to navigate choice in their immediate investment and technical directives and to capitalise on future developments. Innovation insights also enable producers to consider lessons learned, incorporate those lessons, adjust and adapt as required.

'Mining has moved from a position of inaction, to reaction – to being more proactive and strategic in terms of its contributions to (and ability to be part of solving) climate change.'

Tom Butler, former CEO, ICMM 6

Water - A precious resource that must be carefully managed

On 28 July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognised the human right to water and sanitation, and the body acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights.7 Water as a resource is impacted by overconsumption and climate impacts. According to UNESCO, the availability of water in some of the neediest regions will be diminished and the planet will face a 40% shortfall in water supply by 2030 unless the international community “dramatically” improves water supply management.8

Water is a resource that holds high natural capital including social, cultural, environmental and economic value, and access to water is recognised as integral to wellbeing, agriculture, food production and livelihoods. Water is integral to the spiritual and cultural practices of many communities and is essential to the healthy functioning of ecosystems and the services they provide.

The United Nations recognised March 22, 2021 as World Water Day.

The use of water in upstream copper extraction is essential

The process of upstream copper extraction is dependent on the use of water, and it is required across every stage of the copper mining life cycle from exploration, pre-extraction, extraction, processing, remediation, rehabilitation and closure. Water is an essential resource to achieve an optimised copper extraction process.

The composition and volume of water demands in upstream copper production can vary by process, ore type and indeed geography. However as noted by Gunson et al. (2010), the copper industry is a major consumer of fresh water which can influence the availability of fresh water to other competing users.9

The term Water Footprint (WF) refers to the measure of the appropriation of fresh water in volumes consumed or polluted. Measuring WF is a process that quantifies and maps direct and indirect water use, then assesses the sustainability, efficiency and equitability of this use.10

The composition of water outputs must also be carefully managed. Copper mining is an industry that must manage a range of water-related risks to ensure continuous operations and to meet environmental obligations and stewardship.

The dependency, impact and value placed on a shared resource such as water highlights the importance and material risk for copper production including security and availability.

Water use requires effective and responsible management and accounting.

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Reproduced from Zero Emission Copper Mine of the Future – The Water Report