Necessity is making strange bedfellows: organizations that champion sustainability and a greener future are supporting mining as a key factor in that new, low-carbon economy. Even the World Bank sees mineral resource development as a complement rather than a competitor to a greener, more sustainable future.

According to a 2017 report by the World Bank, “The technologies assumed to populate the clean energy shift – wind, solar, hydrogen and electricity systems – are significantly more material-intensive in their composition than current traditional fossil-fuel-based energy supply systems.”

One raw material – copper – has emerged as an essential material in the clean energy transition, critical to the whole clean energy system. Copper is “the king of them all,” according to Ivanhoe Mines founder and billionaire Robert Friedland. He says, “Based on world ecological and environmental problems, every single solution drives you to copper.”

Electric vehicles, for example, require four times as much copper as an internal combustion engine, and the red metal is an essential ingredient in wind and solar technologies as well as power transmission lines. Increasing demand for these green technologies comes with increasing demand for the raw materials needed to make and transmit the green energy. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that primary copper demand could grow by nearly two per cent annually, reaching 31 million tonnes by 2035 – a 43 per cent increase over current demand of 22 million tonnes.

“In terms of forward-looking projections for copper, this new demand for clean energy applications is going to be a key source of growth,” says Dan Woynillowicz, policy director for Clean Energy Canada, a think tank at the Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

In July 2017, Clean Energy Canada published The Growing Role of Minerals for a Low Carbon Future, which explored the rise of solar power and the associated metal and mineral requirements. The report found that Canada’s mining sector can play an essential role in enabling the technologies that will help the world address climate change and achieve clean growth, both through its own environmental performance and by producing the metals and minerals required for clean energy technologies.

“Renewables require a lot of metals and minerals, and so we wanted to better understand what the impact would be on demand for mining those metals and minerals. What opportunity does that present for Canada?” Woynillowicz asks.

B.C.: A copper superpower?

Canada is one of the top 10 copper-producing nations in the world, with B.C. an essential contributor. Each year, B.C. ships around a million tonnes of copper concentrate mined from the eight or nine operating copper mines around the province. It’s the province’s second-largest mining export after metallurgical coal, and B.C. generated $1.8 billion in revenue from copper concentrate sales in 2016.

Investors and multinational mining companies see the potential in “green” markets for metals like copper, and are starting to include the clean energy transition in their decision-making. In a presentation to the Melbourne Mining Club in August 2017, Antofagasta plc stated that it was “early days to fully quantify the impact of clean energy and transport technologies but [there are] big implications for the market.” Meanwhile, Hudbay Minerals predicted “further potential demand upside from electric vehicles and renewable energy” during a presentation at the BMO 2017 Canadian High Yield Dinner & Conference in October. Both companies have dipped a toe into B.C. exploration, with Hudbay recently partnering with Amarc Resources to advance the IKE Copper Porphyry District, and Antofagasta taking out options in Evrim Resources’ Ball Creek Project in B.C.’s Golden Triangle.

Aside from the challenge of finding new copper deposits in the province, there are still social and environmental barriers to overcome when it comes to public trust, according to Woynillowicz. “If there are new proposals for mining, there will likely be community or broader public opposition, because there just isn’t that trust,” he says. “And that means British Columbia would then miss out on the opportunity presented by this growing demand for these metals and minerals.”

Premier John Horgan is already making the connection between B.C.’s minerals industry and the low-carbon economy. In an October visit to Rio Tinto’s Kitimat aluminum smelter, the premier appraised the smelter’s low power usage and low emissions: “[Rio Tinto] is now producing some of the lowest-carbon aluminum in the world, giving them a competitive advantage at a time when consumers are looking for ways to reduce their impact on the climate.”

What does that public interest in a low-carbon future mean for B.C. and its potential to be a copper superpower? Pierre Gratton, president and CEO of the Mining Association of Canada, made a prediction in a speech to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade in the fall of 2017: “As Canada’s largest producer of copper, molybdenum, steel-making coal and a supplier of other key ingredients of clean tech, this [low-carbon economy] certainly bodes well for B.C.”