Resource Snapshot (1): Copper

The World Resources Forum Secretariat is pleased to present the series “Resource Snapshots”. You can learn in less than 2 minutes the key issues of the resource you are interested in.

  • Which industries and applications depend on them?
  • How are they produced? 
  • What economic, environmental and social problems are encountered over the life-cycle? 
  • What are the alternatives? 
  • And where to read more?

We start the series with copper. Please see the contact details at the bottom for feedback.

Applications and use

Copper is considered the best and safest conductor of electricity and heat, thus mainly is used for electricity and energy applications (about 60%). Also it is widely preferred for wiring in buildings and in telecommunication. In most of the European countries copper is used for plumbing as well as for heating systems, because it’s durable and keeps its shape even under high temperature and high water-pressure. Due to characteristics such as resistance to water and corrosion, ductility, light weight and not least its typical colour it is often used by architectsEuropean Copper Institute (2011): A World of Copper. Online: (last access: 19.04.2011)..

Metropolis Museum of science in Amsterdam


South America is the most important copper provider with its two leading countries in mining, Chile and Peru. The US and China also play a big role in the production as the third and fourth country in winning copperBritish Geological Survey (2011): World Mineral Production. Online: (last access: 05.08.2011).. The state-owned Chilean Copper Corporation Codelco is the world’s largest copper producer and owns about 20 percent of copper reserves in the worldCorporación Nacional del Codelco (2011): La Corporación. Online: (last access: 19.04.2011)..


In 2010 the world copper reserves were estimated to be about 630 million tons of which almost 40 percent are located in South AmericaU.S. Geological Survey (2011): Mineral Commodity Summaries – Copper. Online: (last access: 23.05.2011).. In the US almost as much copper is gained from recycling as from mining per yearCopper Development Association (2011): Environment. Online: (last access: 20.04.2011)..
Supplies for copper are decreasing due to steadily growing demand; in China the base metal (aluminium, copper, zinc, lead, nickel, tin) consumption increased by 17 percent annual from 2000 to 2009.

Recent price developments

In only two years copper’s world market price rose from 5,150 $ per ton in 2009 to 9,493 $ per ton in April 2011[fn]World Bank (2011): Commodity Price Data. Online: (last access: 23.05.2011).[/fn]. In 2002 copper reached its lowest price since 1988 with 1,670 $ per ton in the U.S.[fn]U.S. Geological Survey (2010): Historical Statistics for Mineral and Material Commodities in the United States. Online: (last access: 23.05.2011).[/fn] and had its climax in February 2011 with a world market price of 9,868 $ per ton[fn]World Bank (2011): Commodity Price Data. Online: (last access: 23.05.2011).[/fn]. Although stocks have been declining in 2010, copper prices are not expected to continue rising since they are already over production costs at the moment. These high prices lead to increased use of alternatives such as aluminium[fn]World Bank (2011): Topical Annex. Online: (last access: 23.05.2011).[/fn].

Copper futures 1988-2011

Environmental problems

Mining copper causes significant CO2 emissions due to its high energy need. In Chile the copper industry records the highest GHG emissions in comparison to other industrial and mining branches. Another problem is the production of sulphur dioxide during the smelting process, about two tons SO2 are produced per ton of copper. Sulphur dioxide causes acid rain which destroys the environmentAlvarado, S.; Maldonado, P.; Barrios, A.; Jaques I. (2002): Long term energy-related environmental issues of copper production. In: Energy, Volume 27, Issue 2, p.183-196. .

Social problems

Copper wires

The production of copper emits silica dust particles that provoke various illnesses such as asthma or skin diseases. In Zambia for example a big migration to the cities is recorded which can be led back to the growing copper industry. For this reason shanty towns can be found in lots of Zambian cities (see also


Alternatives for copper depend on the application. Aluminium is considered as a substitute for copper in several applications, e.g. power cables and facades. Titanium can be used as an alternative for copper as a heat exchanging steel. Optical fiber can be an alternative in telecommunication applications. Plastics can be used for water and drain pipes as well as for plumbingU.S. Geological Survey (2011): Mineral Commodity Summaries – Copper. Online: (last access: 19.05.2011)..

WRF Resource Snapshot (1) has been compiled by Riccarda Sutter. She would greatly appreciate corrections, suggestions or other remarks, which could improve this document. Suggestions for which other resources to choose for one of the coming WRF Resource Snapshots are also welcome. Riccarda can be reached at .