Existing copper resources can sustain increasing global demand for at least another century, new research has found.
The finding, emerging out of Monash University, means social and environmental concerns could be the biggest restrictions on future copper production.
"Workers' rights, mining impacts on cultural lands, issues of benefit sharing and the potential for environmental degradation are already affecting the viability of copper production and will increasingly come into play," Monash researcher Dr Gavin Mudd said.
Contrary to predictions which estimate copper supplies would run out in about 30 years, the research has revealed technological advancements means there are plenty of viable resources remaining.
"Although our estimates are much larger than any previously available, they're a minimum. In fact, figures for resources at some mining projects have already doubled or more since we completed the database," Monash researcher Dr Simon Jowitt said.
Jowitt expects the database to change the sector’s understanding of copper availability and will likely improve industry practice with respect to mineral resource reporting and exploration.
Mudd said the sizeable volumes of available copper means the mining picture is far more complex than merely stating there are 'x' years of supply left.
The researchers are now attempting to model the life cycles and greenhouse gas impacts of potential copper production, giving a better assessment of the future environmental impacts of copper mining.
"Pressingly, we need to acknowledge that with existing copper resources we're not just going to be dealing with the production of a few million tonnes of tailings from mining a century ago; we are now dealing with a few billion tonnes or tens of billions of tonnes of mine waste produced during modern mining," Mudd said.
BHP Billiton is one miner that has recognised the crucial role copper plays in the development of emerging economies and the improvement of living standards.
“Copper is critical to power supply, telecommunications and electronic devices, and is directly linked to economic development. For example, six years ago China consumed about 25 per cent of global copper, today it consumes more than 40 per cent,” BHP chairman Jac Nasser said.
Copper is stronghold of BHP’s, developed in the 1980s through the acquisition of Utah International from GE for $2.4 billion, today it makes up about 15 per cent of BHP’s profit.