Copper investment must keep up with ‘supply war’

Shiny copper bullion bars
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Moves to acquire copper mines and mining companies by industry giants Rio Tinto and BHP are just the beginning of a looming global supply war for copper resources, writes Michael Huggins, director and head of Australia and New Zealand at Partners in Performance.

To keep pace with market demand as the world races to achieve more ambitious emissions reduction targets, Australian investors and governments must prepare for this now. 

The current unprecedented ‘war on copper’ is taking place as Australia, and the rest of the world commits, to lowering carbon emissions. With countries turning away from fossil fuels, and toward renewable energy sources which rely on electricity, this electrification requires extensive supplies of copper to support it.

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Along with other critical minerals, copper in particular will play a key role in supporting the world’s transition to cleaner, renewable sources of energy, thanks to its high ductility, malleability, thermal and electrical conductivity, and its excellent resistance to corrosion.

These traits, and others, make copper an integral part of the electric grid infrastructure required to transmit renewable sources of energy. It is also a major component of the infrastructure needed for renewable energy systems to be able to generate power from solar, hydro, thermal and wind energy. 

Additionally, and particularly relevant in light of Labor’s recently proposed National Electric Vehicle Strategy, copper is a major material used in the manufacturing of electric vehicles, including in motors, batteries, inverters, wiring,  and charging stations. 

There are generally three types of electric vehicles, each requiring more copper than a traditional internal combustion vehicle. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles use around 60kg of copper on average, with battery electric vehicles requiring an average of 83kg of copper per vehicle. 

With predictions that 2035 will be the last year of petrol-powered vehicle production, Australia’s investment in green energy will be significantly undermined if Australia doesn’t secure the copper it needs to support it.

Recent analysis by not-for-profit research organisation, Climateworks, shows there is strong potential for electric vehicles to make up 76 per cent of Australia’s new vehicle sales by 2030. Globally, there is momentum for EVs to make up 100 per cent of new cars sold by 2035.

Given the fact electric vehicles account for less than 2 per cent of new vehicles sold in Australia so far this year, this will be a significantly rapid increase in uptake over the next decade or so. 

To support this, Australia needs to consider renewed investment in copper mining, now rather than later. 

With Rio Tinto looking to secure one of the world’s largest copper mining companies, Turquoise Hill, and BHP’s bid to takeover copper-gold miner, Oz Minerals, it’s clear to see that the industry is preparing for an all-out war on copper prices. 

Australia is currently the world’s sixth largest producer of copper, but we have the second largest copper reserves in the world. Copper is already essential to our everyday lives—primarily in the delivery of electricity and water. But as we look to renewable energy solutions, such as electric cars, solar and hydro energy sources, the increasing pressure on the electrical grid has made copper “the new oil.”

While promising moves have been made by Labor, such as their commitment to invest in renewable energy, and the upcoming electric vehicle strategy, neither major party has yet embraced the opportunity Australia has to become a leading global copper producer vital to supporting a renewable energy future.

Having helped clients mitigate 36Mtpa CO2 emissions in the past 18 months, we at Partners in Performance believe that copper, alongside lithium and cobalt, is one of the most important commodities in Australia’s journey to net zero.

Related article: CSIRO: Australia’s minerals key to renewable powerhouse potential

Australia must invest in copper now, or it will struggle to secure supply and face hyper-inflated costs on the open market, driven by global demand. We are already seeing this unfold, rapidly—the government must respond quickly. 

The manufacturing of electric vehicles relies on copper and there is currently a global copper shortage. This scarcity is only going to get worse as countries around the world wrestle to meet sustainability demands. At the same time, Australia has extensive copper reserves. This is a win-win for policy makers that we are not yet capitalising on.

Australia must approve copper mining operations now to avoid having to go to the open market. 2050 sustainability goals cannot be achieved without copper to support it.

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