The demand for raw materials and energy is a function of population and its desire to improve its quality of life. That means different things to different people. For some, it means a transition away from fossil fuels to save a planet that has reached its boiling point. For others, it might simply mean access to shelter, clean water, and affordable electricity. While reuse and circularity are important, society can’t recycle its way forward. Mining must provide those resources. Keeping up with expected demand, however, could be a tall order.
During early July, Anglo American posted, “The Role of Mining in a Transitioning World,” to its website. The presentation was given by Paul Gait, the company’s chief economist. He sets it up by tying economic growth to the accumulation of commodities, such as steel (iron ore and coal) and copper, which is where most of the mining investments take place today. He showed how the U.S. carried consumption of these commodities forward from the U.K., as one societal evolution followed another. That cycle is repeating again today with China, Gait explained.
The presentation addresses the U.N. Sustainability Goal of No Poverty, and asks: What will it really take? The world would need nearly four times the amount of copper and more than four times the amount of steel produced today to lift everyone out of poverty. He then compared the material intensity of an electric car with a conventional auto, and offshore wind vs. coal-fired power. The amount of resources required, as any engineer could quickly surmise, is staggering. Beyond copper and iron ore, larger amounts of other metals, including nickel, zinc, and graphite, enter the conversation.
Assuming society continues to move down this path, resource demand seems assured. “The real issue is not the future of demand, but of the mining industry’s ability to meet this demand,” Gait said. Using copper as an example, he shows how the global resource base has started to plateau. Comparing today’s largest copper mines with those of 100 years ago, Gait notes how processing improvements expanded the resource base. “The ability to drop head grades by approximately 70% in an economically viable manner has enabled an extraordinary exponential (620%) increase in reserves and output,” Gait said. Larger haul trucks and improved hydrometallurgical processing techniques tripled productivity from 1990 to 2010. “It is this ‘order of magnitude’ change that will be required to offset declining ore grades,” Gait said.
Gait concludes with some interesting observations. He shows where society is spending money and (spoiler alert) it’s not resource development. While the stated goal is a just transition to a sustainable future, Gait explained, current investments today indicate otherwise.