Cables, printed circuit boards, and electronics all require copper. Now the future of transport depends on it too: an electric vehicle contains around 70 to 100 kilograms of copper, most for the electric motor.
Given the metal’s importance, the geopolitical, technological, and environmental stakes are huge. The West needs to reduce its dependency on China. It must find alternatives, and it should increase recycling.
Copper is the world’s third most consumed metal after iron and aluminum. At more than $8,000 per metric ton, it is expensive. The high price and relative scarcity make it essential to secure supply.
China has been playing the long game. Despite their low-grade ores, China’s own mines have made it the world’s third largest producer after Chile and Peru. Even more important, China has built a leading position in refining. This puts it at the front of the queue for raw material supply and has enabled Beijing to gain a stranglehold in African countries, particularly in large copper producers Congo and Zambia.
If a copper shortage emerges, the West will be ill-prepared. The design and production of our smartphones, data centers, electric vehicles, and electricity transmission infrastructure will be at the mercy of China’s Communist Party.
Urgent action is required. The “laissez-faire” market approach is no longer an option. A first step would be to expose the human rights abuses prevalent in Chinese-owned African mines, where striking workers are banned, “troublemakers” disciplined, and even shot when protesting unpaid wages.
Western governments should simultaneously back their own companies to invest in African copper mines, promising and delivering better working conditions than Chinese companies. Sanctions should be imposed against individual Chinese owners and managers responsible for abuses. This would both seize the moral high ground and weaken the Chinese-owned mines financially. Incentives to buy local could also help. The EU could, for example, use tax breaks and tariffs to favor supply from mines in Poland.
Investment should be poured into research for alternatives to copper. Aluminum represents a promising substitute for electric motors. It costs only a quarter of the price of copper. Support is needed to develop new extraction methods with low environmental impact, ensuring that Chinese competition with low environmental standards is disadvantaged in the marketplace.
The West should also emphasize recycling. Copper is one of the few materials that can be 100% recycled without any loss of performance — reducing carbon emissions and improving security of supply My own country, the UK, has a particularly poor record, generating 23.9 kilograms of e-waste per person. It’s short of reprocessing capacity, resulting in copper-rich waste being landfilled or incinerated.
Small American and European local mines should be encouraged to reopen and shield them from market price fluctuations. Cornwall, the small southwest corner of England, used to be the world’s number one producer of copper until most mines became uneconomical.
Copper underpins the industries that will define our future and that of our children, so control of supply cannot be left to China. A proactive approach is required.
Christopher Cytera CEng MIET is a Non-resident senior fellow with the Digital Innovation Initiative at the Center for European Policy Analysis and a technology business executive with over 30 years of experience in semiconductors, electronics, communications, video, and imaging.
Bandwidth is CEPA’s online journal dedicated to advancing transatlantic cooperation on tech policy. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.