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Copper bosses warn of supply threat to climate ambitions

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Global plans to electrify economies and cut carbon emissions could be slowed down by copper shortages, the head of the world’s largest listed producer of the metal has warned.

Richard Adkerson, chief executive and chair of US mining group Freeport-McMoRan, said surging global demand for copper for the rapid rollout of electric cars, renewable electricity and power lines would cause a shortfall.

“There is going to be a very significant shortage in copper,” he said. “It’s going to be very difficult to meet the aspirations that have been set.”

Copper is crucial for “greening” the economy because of its ability to conduct electricity. An electric car can use three times the amount of copper as a combustion engine counterpart, while renewable energy projects tend to need five times the volume of the metal as traditional gas, coal and nuclear power plants.

In a report issued last week, consultancy Wood Mackenzie said 9.7mn tonnes of annual supply needs to come from projects yet to be sanctioned over the next decade. The market size is at present 25mn tons a year.

“To date, a shortfall of this magnitude has never been overcome,” the authors wrote, predicting that $23bn of annual investment in new projects was needed, two-thirds more than the average over the past 30 years.

Maximo Pacheco, chair of Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer, told the Financial Times he expected a deficit of 6mn to 7mn tons of copper over the next decade.

Codelco has been struggling to maintain output at its mines, with Pacheco saying it would not be able to recover to last year’s production levels for up to four years. “It’s a tremendous effort to replace the resources,” he said.

Mining executives say the supply challenge is compounded by the downturn in the global economy, which has dragged copper prices lower and led commodity strategists to predict a market surplus next year.

“This current economic turmoil is only making the problem worse,” Adkerson said. “Companies are reluctant to invest in today’s world.”

Visible copper stocks, which make up a small fraction of the inventory held but heavily influence purchasing managers’ decisions, are running at record lows, creating a risk of volatile price changes.

Geopolitical tensions are also shaking up supplies of metals, including copper. Industry executives said the shunning of Russian supplies had led to a more immediate rush in Europe, where buyers have been willing to pay hefty premiums or sign longer-term deals to secure material.

Copper producers say a host of factors from lengthy government permitting processes and projects where extraction is more difficult to a lack of shovel-ready projects make it challenging to meet long-term demand growth.

Jonathan Price, chief executive of Teck Resources, which is developing one of the world’s largest copper projects in Chile, said at the recent FT Mining Summit that “the equation just doesn’t add up” between the rise in demand and obstacles for new supply .

However, a supply response by increasing production from scrap copper could ease some of the pressure, and Adkerson said unforeseen technological advances could also unlock supply.

“If we just stick with today’s technology and you look at the challenges, the aspirations are outrunning the reality,” he said.

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